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6 August 2016

The great earth-mover: just how capable was Capability Brown?

It's time we re-examined the legacy of England's greatest gardener.

By Richard Mabey

This year, somewhat overshadowed by the quatercentenary of Shakespeare’s death, marks the tercentenary of the birth of the landscape designer Lancelot Brown, whose supposedly naturalistic confections around more than 130 country houses earned him the popular tag of ­“Capability”. The conjunction with Shakespeare has pleased Brown’s supporters, who believe he should be similarly regarded as one of the “curators of English identity”. “He stands behind our vision, and fantasy,” one biographer’s blurb reads, “of rural England.” Fantasy for sure. It’s hard to see what connection the classic Brownian prospect – artificial lake, vast lawns, mansion framed by trees – has to do with the real rural England.

But hyperbolic praise for the great earth-mover is nothing new. In 2011 the Financial Times carried a series of articles that suggested Brown should be “canonised”. The historian Norman Scarfe wrote: “England’s most original contribution to the whole history of art lies in the landscape, and was an affair of creating harmonious pictures with the land itself.” Back in the 18th century Horace Walpole suggested: “Such . . . was the effect of his genius that when he was the happiest man, he will be least remembered; so closely did he copy nature that his works will be mistaken.”

Brown’s champions have always claimed that his supposed ability to imitate nature was his special gift. But the plaudits open up the contradictions at the heart of Brownism. He is praised as a uniquely original artist and a faithful copyist; as a minimalist and a land engineer on the epic scale; even as a rustic Marcel Duchamp, reimagining nature by dragging it into the gallery of the garden.

In the end these aesthetic arguments are a matter of personal taste: anyone is ­entitled to make their garden into an installation. The more serious objection to Brown – or more properly to his cult – is that he is implicated in a powerful but false creation myth,
of the kind the great historical ecologist Oliver Rackham called “pseudo-history”. This origin story posits Brown as Promethean, creating the style that, by a kind of trickle-down, remodelled the entire landscape of lowland England. The claims made on his behalf, when you step back, are of breathtaking hubris: “creating harmonious pictures with the land itself”. Whose harmony? Whose land? The ethos of “landskipping” has had corrosive effects on our understanding of the natural, and of the millennia of landscape-making that preceded Brown, and offers dangerous models for the future.

The roots of Brown’s designs lay not in nature but in the philosophy of “Improvement” that pervaded public affairs in the 18th century. Improvement – in farming, industry, colonial adventure – lay at the heart of Whig philosophy and was an economic project cloaked in moral justifications. In landscape it involved presenting a clear view of a landlord’s benevolence and entrepreneurial spirit together with a physical structure that dramatised the ­social hierarchy of the estate. The so-called “English style” is supposed to have been a reaction against the contrived topiary and symmetrical parterres of French and Italian gardens, which represented the stiff intellectualism of the Continent, and was to be countered by buxom curves and the indigenous “emblem of pure legal liberty”. In truth both were domineering idioms, and the “naturalisation” in Brown’s and others’ designs has always been just spin. Rich men with access to the new technologies of surveying and drainage could now produce their own “nature”. Alexander Pope’s celebrated injunction to “Consult the genius of the place” turns out in his Epistle to Burlington to be the programme for an inquisition, where if the genius loci is found to be supplying short measures of elegance and order, the real genius, the landowner, must step in. His apologists agreed (Brown wrote little about his own work): “the living landscape”, Walpole instructed, must be “chastened or polished”. Nature must be “rescued and improved”, the damage of the Fall repaired.

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The overriding aim of English 18th-century landscaping was to demonstrate the standing of the Big House. A crucial device was the ha-ha, a sunken, walled ditch that excluded grazing animals while allowing the working countryside beyond to be seen unobstructed – “taken in” as part of the view. These agricultural acres were in turn being transformed by the forces of Improvement, so that the landowner had, in the same field of view, both his aesthetic playground and his commercial workplace, though reminders of the less pretty realities of farming, such as pigsties and workers’ hovels, were screened off by strategically placed tree belts. On the other side of the ditch, ordinary folk, excluded along with the cows and deer, could see the seat of rural power in plain and unambiguous sight, often on a slight rise in the ground. Humphry Repton, Brown’s successor, spoke approvingly of “that charm which only belongs to ownership, the exclusive right of enjoyment, with the power of refusing that others should share our pleasure”. Inside this overall structure were a series of pick-and-mix motifs – perfect parabolas of gravel, vast acres of lawn, water features where water had no business to be, follies inspired by neoclassical painting – assembled without reference to site or historical context. Cumulatively they built up an entire grammar of exclusion and control.

Brown himself was no high-born elitist. He grew up in Northumberland and served six years of apprenticeship in the gardens of Sir William Loraine at Kirkharle. Although he did develop a personal style, he is best understood as a factor, a man adept at giving physical expression to his patrons’ ambitions. He worked on several commissions at once, sometimes simply modifying earlier layouts by designers such as William Kent and Charles Bridgeman. But despite the legend of harmoniously absorbing the local countryside, his projects were often brutally destructive. At Croome Court in Worcestershire, he drained a huge “morass” in the floodplain of the Avon (today it would be a protected marshland) into an excavated lake via artificial rivers. At Moor Park in Hertfordshire he created clusters of obtrusive hillocks, topped by groves of trees: “a dullish piece of Hertfordshire”, one of the owner’s family remarked, “[transformed] into a very fair imitation of Italy”. The Grecian Valley at Stowe, an estate where Lord Cobham had previously cleared three villages that spoiled his view, was made by moving earth in the opposite direction – 24,000 cubic yards of it, dug out and carted by hand. At Milton in Dorset, Lord Milton had the whole town razed to the ground while Brown was working for him between 1763 and 1770, replacing it with ten miles of dead straight carriage drives and plantations of pines.

Tree planting was a significant ingredient of Brown’s improvements. Trees were territorial markers, visible demonstrations of status, emblems of continuity. They could conjure up a mythic pleasure ground or a valuable investment. Different species had different symbolic values. Oaks and elms were icons of patriotism. Imported evergreens such as cedars of Lebanon and Douglas firs were favoured because they added an aura of Britain’s imperial power and boundless capacity to import new wonders from across the globe. Saplings were used, but many patrons wanted mature trees, to achieve “the Immediate Effect of Wood”. Brown designed a “planting engine” for this purpose, a flat bed mounted on two large iron wheels. I have an engraving of a six-man machine carrying a huge beech tree. It looks like the triumphant parading of a captured gun. Brown’s favourite tree motif was “the clump”, a woodland canapé, suggestive of nature’s mysteries when viewed from the terrace, but purged of any credible suggestion of wildness, such as the undergrowth that forms the natural transition between wood and grass. Uvedale Price, Brown’s most articulate contemporary critic, wrote of it: “the clump – a name, which if the first letter were taken away would most accurately describe its form and effect . . . [they] are like so many puddings turned out of one common mould”.

Planting amenity trees seems so self-evidently a force for good that it is hard for us to understand what a novel practice it was before the 18th century. Why bother when trees appeared so magnanimously of their own accord? We’ve become blinkered to the fact that it’s yet another expression of human power over nature. Trees cannot exist, we believe, unless we thrust them into the ground. That they have perfectly adequate reproductive systems of their own has vanished from popular understanding.

Brown’s gardens can of course be captivating, in a hypnotic way. A couple of years ago at a literary festival at Petworth House, Sussex (Brown, 1753 onwards), I had the rare perk of dining in the great hall, looking out over continents of lawn that seemed to extend unbroken all the way to the Midsummer Eve’s sunset, and with J M W Turner’s watercolours of the burnished scene just behind my chair. I was thoroughly enchanted. But in the colder light of the following morning I realised I might as well have been gazing out over a suburban playing field.

Half a lifetime further back, I lived close to the great wastes of Ashridge and Berkhamsted Commons in the Chilterns, a shape-shifting, storytelling prospect of heath and ancient beechwoods which had been evolving under common usage for more than a thousand years. All that spoiled it were the remnants of Brown’s tinkerings in the 1760s – weird triangular glades, cut into the woods, and tightly mown rides forced through the gorse and beech for no reason other than to reveal the ghastly prospect of Ashridge House. What they said to me – as they said to Brown’s contemporaries such as Uvedale Price, William Cowper and Oliver Goldsmith – was that his designs are meaningless; they are decorative ornaments. Out in the real countryside, landscape emerges as it has always done since at least the Iron Age, by constant negotiation between natural and human ingenuity.

Alas, the heirs of Improvement haven’t wised up to benign natural processes; neither have they developed any respect for millennia of vernacular landscaping. In 1979, in the wake of Dutch elm disease, a group of designers published an influential manifesto called After the Elm. After praising the example set by Brown and his ilk, and the “informal, apparently almost casual . . . English style” created in the 18th century, they set out a Soviet-style plan for a national “grand design” by way of reparation for the
blight. “It is therefore more important than ever,” they wrote, “that the initial plan is prepared by professional landscape designers, and is strong, cohesive and convincing, not a collation of haphazard suggestions by many people” – ignoring that it is unplanned,
communal enterprise that gives the English countryside its variety and character.

The nearest large-scale Brown landscape to my home in East Anglia is at Heveningham Hall in Suffolk, which he began to lay out for Sir Gerald Vanneck in 1783. Driving to it from the west, you pass through the upper Blyth Valley, an intimate pocket of twisting medieval lanes arched over by ancient hornbeams and bordered by tiny meadows that really does feel like an English rural archetype. To come upon the estate after this is like being teleported to a different continent. Beyond the iron railings, immense acres of grass and countless sheep sweep up to the hall in a grand statement of authority. Brown created a dramatic lake over a mile long and preserved a few of the pre-emparkment oaks, but they stand abruptly in shorn grass, like municipal statues. Heveningham Hall was bought in 1994 by the property magnate Jon Hunt, who commissioned the landscaper Kim Wilkie to complete Brown’s design. Wilkie simultaneously worked on what is called “the Wilderness Reserve” – a well-
meaning project, but a long way from the “rewilding” it claims to be. Echoing Brown at Croome, he drowned a wet alderwood under a lake. He planted 800,000 trees in regimented lines and hard-edged plantations, devoid of wild undergrowth. Seventy-two
thousand were ash, which Wilkie, fearing ash dieback, removed and replaced with oak and hornbeam – “an £850,000 mistake”, he judged. Indeed it was. Thirty-five miles to the south-west, next to the wild cherry and hazel wood known as Arger Fen, the Suffolk Wildlife Trust let a large arable field go feral ten years ago. It turned spontaneously into an ash wood and then, when many of the ash seedlings died, into a natural wood with ten different species of tree distributed across the site – all with no cost or planting contortions whatsoever.

Arger Fen is a good place to see a real ­English landscape. So, on a larger scale, are the Yorkshire Dales, where the awesome U-shaped valleys were sculpted by glaciers in the last Ice Age, and the New Forest, whose elvish woods were designated “Ancient and Ornamental” in 1877 without having had even the merest touch by a designer. 

Richard Mabey’s “The Cabaret of Plants” is published by Profile Books

This article appears in the 26 Jul 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Summer double issue