One of the best bits of our new found ‘fogey’ status as members of the National Trust has been to visit a number of the landscapes of Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown. We visited Petworth House and Park recently www.nationaltrust.org.uk/petworth-house-and-park which is one of his best. Our visit coincided with a 300th anniversary exhibition and a good talk about him which persuaded me to purchase Jane Brown’s definitive biography ‘Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown, 1716-1783: The Omnipotent Magician’ which I’ve just finished. I wouldn’t particularly recommend it unless you want to know the minutiae of his day to day existence.
I wasn’t unaware of ‘Capability’ Brown – it’s just that I hadn’t taken the trouble to find out who he was and what he and the 18th century English Landscape Movement were about. His is one of those names you hear about without quite being able to picture what it was he did which is hardly surprising since his work was about making landscapes which looked natural whilst being entirely man made. In fact like many others I’ve been to some of his landscapes over the years without giving him a second thought (Blenheim Palace – to see Churchill’s birthplace and Longleat – to see the lions).
‘Capability’ Brown was the leading exponent of the English Landscape Movement which held that landscape should be inspired by nature and complement architecture. It replaced geometric layouts with an ‘arcadian’ vision of an idyllic pastoral paradise where man and nature co-exist in a setting of natural beauty in perfect harmony. It was influenced by the work of the French painter Claude Lorraine and begun by the landscape designers William Kent (1685-1738) and Charles Bridgeman (1690-1738).
Just as it is not necessary to visit all the buildings by a famous architect to get the ‘general idea’ it is not necessary to visit all of Brown’s landscapes to get a clear understanding of what he was about which is just as well as he was prolific and much of his work is ‘up north’. The components of the ‘classic’ Brown landscape were water engineering and earth moving on an often monumental scale to create views (panoramic and framed), rolling lawns, walks, driveways, lakes (preferably ‘serpentine’ ie winding or twisting), rivers, bridges, hills (man-made if necessary), trees (both individual – esp. the imposing Cedar of Lebanon – and in clumps and ‘ribbons’) and buildings and follies strategically set in the landscape.
There is something surreal about these landscapes – natural but not quite natural – and my wife dislikes them for this reason – but it has been fun discovering his work. It is good to know that so much of it still survives and to see him being celebrated on the 300th anniversary of his birth.