This summer a small exhibition in the Blackwell Hall of the Weston Library on Broad Street, Oxford, will tell the story of The English Garden: Views and Visitors. It also marks the 300th anniversary of the birth of the man behind England’s green and pleasant land, the landscape designer and entrepreneur Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown.
What Shakespeare has done for English letters, so Brown has done for English landscape. Yet we know what Shakespeare created was fiction; even if his fiction was so convincing that when we think of Richard III or Henry V, we think firstly of Shakespeare’s characters, rather than the historical record. With Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown, the story is slightly different as his landscapes look so natural that it is hard to see the hand of the artist at work at all. Perhaps Brown’s success has been such that he has almost damned himself to historical obscurity through creating a product so good, subsequent generations of visitors have given nature herself the credit.
2016 gives us the opportunity to re-assert the balance, and bring Brown into the popular pantheon of English artistic heroes.
The county of Oxfordshire is pretty much where it all started for Capability Brown. Thirteen miles north of Oxford lies Kiddington Hall. This is where Capability Brown appeared, aged 23 in 1739, with introductions from his former employer, the Northumbrian landowner Sir William Lorraine. Kiddington’s owner, Sir Charles Browne, gave this other Brown his first big break in the south of England. Lancelot was involved in the formation of the lawns and lake in front of the house. The lake’s source was the River Glyme, which he would return to some twenty years later in his career to create the magnificent lake at Blenheim Palace.
Two years later, Brown found himself twenty-five miles north east of the city of dreaming spires as the new Head Gardener of Stowe. By 1741 this landscape was already one of the most famous in Europe. Jacques Rigaud’s fifteen engravings, published in July 1739, ensured that Stowe’s landscape was broadcast far beyond Buckinghamshire. In the far corner of Lord Cobham’s estate at Stowe, Brown started work on creating an ideal valley, through which Cobham’s visitors could walk and imagine themselves as the poets of Classical antiquity. Excavating approximately 24,000 cubic yards of earth, Brown’s male and female labourers were creating landscape on the largest scale.
Brown’s long career, stretching for the next forty-two years until his death in 1783, is significant for a huge range of factors. Most importantly he codified the idea of the ‘natural’ in landscape design. The new exhibition at Compton Verney, celebrating Brown’s work there for the 14th Baron Willoughby de Broke from 1768, efficiently captures his style.
Brown’s landscapes were typically simple, uncluttered and restrained, generally comprising sweeping pasture bordered with tree clumps, perimeter shelter-belts and screens of trees. He swept away the formal parterres and the classically-inspired allusions of the previous age, but also planted thousands of trees – predominantly oak, ash and elm. The resultant landscape was perfectly designed to encourage those 18th-century pursuits of hunting, shooting and carriage-riding.
In 2016, Brown’s image of England – appearing at the beginning of every episode of Downton Abbey thanks to his work at Highclere Castle – has achieved an unprecedented global reach.