Place-making: The Art of Capability Brown, 1716-1783
By John Phibbs
Leading authority on Brown publishes long-awaited celebration to mark his 300th anniversary
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THE BOOK: This book is to be published in hardback, with approximately 320 pages in 276 x 219 mm format, and will include at least 100 illustrations including plans and new colour photography. Publication is scheduled for May 2017.
Capability Brown was a great artist, and this book shows what his artistry consisted of. His influence on the culture of England has been as great as that of Turner, Telford and Wordsworth.
Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown (1716-1783) is the iconic figure at the head of the English landscape style, a tradition that has dominated landscape design in the western world. He was widely acclaimed for his genius in his own day, lived on personal terms with the king, a friend of five prime-ministers, and the great men of his day.
Two factors make his astonishing achievements relevant to us today: first the scale at which he worked and the prolixity of his commissions have given him a direct influence on some half a million acres of England and Wales (that’s an average size English county); and second, arising from that, Brown didn’t just transform the English countryside, he also transformed our idea of what it is to be English and what England is. His work is everywhere, but goes largely unnoticed, the phrase ‘Invisible in plain sight’ comes to mind. Even today though he has had biographers, his work has generated very little analysis.
Very little of what he wrote survives, but the reason why he isn’t noticed – and this point was made in his own day in the 18th century – is that his was such a naturalistic style that all his best work was mistaken for untouched nature. This has made it very difficult to see and understand, which leaves us in a strange situation today. Of the 250 or so country houses for which he designed parks, about 200 are still worth seeing, and millions of people every year visit the 140 that are at least occasionally open to the public. Yet if you were to ask any one of these visitors the simplest questions about the parks (‘what are they for?’, ‘how do they work?’, ‘why did they need so much grass?’ ‘what do they have to do with country houses?’, for example), they would look at you bemused, as if you had asked what mountains are for. For people who are used to English landscape, parks simply are what they are: parks have grass because they are parks.
This blindness to these obvious questions is not confined to the general public. Professional landscape architects, academics and those involved in landscape conservation would be no more able to answer them. It is not just that there is no consensus in understanding Capability Brown’s work, but there has been no attempt to understand it. Even the framework of language for understanding it is lacking. For all his acknowledged importance, Brown is a blank.
This book for the first time answers these simple questions about the English landscape tradition and Brown’s place in it, but it aims primarily to make landscape legible, to show people where to stand, what to look at and how to see.
Historic England is the public body that champions and protects England’s historic environment, from the prehistoric to the post-War. For further information go to HistoricEngland.org.uk
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John Phibbs read Classics at Oxford and then developed the idea that historic parks and gardens could and should be recorded and analysed like any other works of art, and that this would be a sensible first step towards deciding what should happen to them next. This idea was widely adopted after the great storm of October 1987. John Phibbs himself spent the next five years building up his own practice in landscape management and assessing landscapes for English Heritage. It was an amazing education out of which came the realisations that Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown was not only the most prolific but also the greatest of the English landscape gardeners, and that his work had long been misunderstood, largely because of the mischievous attacks made on it by the proponents of the Picturesque style, which arose after his death in reaction to his work. In this book John hopes to put right the wrongs that have been done to Brown’s reputation and to re-establish him in his rightful place as a figure of great significance in the characterisation of England and Wales.
The Art of Capability Brown: Place-making 1716-1783
First steps in ha-ha theory
‘I hope they will soon find out in France that Place-making, and a good English Garden, depend entirely upon principle and have very little to do with fashion; for it is a word that in my opinion disgraces Science wherever it is found.’ Lancelot Brown, undated letter to Thomas Dyer, who was acting for an unknown French client.
Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown (1716-1783) is the iconic figure at the head of one of the two great traditions of landscape design in the western world. The other is dominated by André Le Nôtre (1613-1700), gardener to Louis XIV, who made Versailles a world of order, of avenues and canals, statues and topiary, fountains and meticulously kept parterres, to show that even nature would do the bidding of a man as powerful as his master the king. In England, by contrast, Brown’s work came to exemplify what is known as the English landscape tradition. He set aside the power of man and built parks and gardens made up of sinuous sweeps of water, flowing lawns and apparently casual groups of trees, places that harmonised with nature and were shaped by natural forms, places where king and commoner might meet as equals.
Both Brown and Le Nôtre are best known for what they did - neither wrote anything worth reading. But it is not too much to say that their two imaginations pervade all our thinking about landscape and the environment today. Each has had his moment of pre-eminence during the intervening centuries, but there is one striking difference between the two, which is the starting point for this book.
André Le Nôtre’s work, at Vaux le Vicomte and above all at Versailles, has been analysed and described, photographed and discussed, in book after book. Scarcely a year goes by without another volume gorgeously illustrated with pictures of his photogenic avenues and parterres, the statues at dawn with the canal just beyond, silver in the mist.
Though he was on personal terms with the king, a friend of five prime-ministers, and widely acclaimed for his genius in his own day, Capability Brown has generated no such literature. He has had biographers, but his work itself remains little considered.
Two factors have made his achievement lastingly astonishing: first the scale at which he worked and the prolixity of his commissions have given him a direct influence on some half a million acres of England and Wales (that’s an average size English county); and second, the consequential point that Brown didn’t just transform the English countryside, he also transformed our idea of what it is to be English and what England is. His work is everywhere, but goes largely unnoticed, the phrase ‘Invisible in plain sight’ comes to mind. The reason why he isn’t noticed – and this point was made in his own day in the 18th century – is that he worked in such a naturalistic style that all his best work was mistaken for the work of nature. This has made his work very difficult to see and understand, and it leaves us in a strange situation today. Of the 250 or so country houses for which he designed parks, about 200 are still worth seeing, and millions of people every year visit the 140 that are at least occasionally open to the public. Yet if you were to ask any one of these visitors the simplest questions about the parks (‘what are they for?’, ‘how do they work?’, ‘why did they need so much grass?’ ‘what do they have to do with country houses?’, for example), they would look at you bemused, as if you had asked what mountains are for. For people who are used to English landscape, parks simply are what they are: parks have grass because they are parks.
- 24th April 2018 Step aside Shakespeare, make room for Capability
I have some wonderful news for one and all. On 29th May Capability Brown is to be commemorated with a fountain in the cloister garth at Westminster Abbey. This is not just the honour due to a great man, it also represents a final recognition by the establishment of the importance of landscape in our national culture and life. What better way to celebrate the tercentenary. The credit is all Alan Titchmarsh…27th November 2017 Another review - this time The Times
Place-making - if I read aright - is at the top of Stephen Anderton's list for best gardening books of 2017. Furthermore he appears to have read it. Furthermore he has published his views in The Times - and to prove it, here is the link:
Who is this man Anderton? He deserves a medal!
Johnny Phibbs21st November 2017 Two more reviews of Place-making
Dear all, a couple more reviews have come in. They help to clarify in my own mind what I was writing about - which is as follows. Anyone who visits a designed landscape will notice the primroses, the ducks on the pond, the autumn colour and the pointing finger of a dead branch on a tree - these are the simple pleasures available to all who visit parks and they were the starting point of the first…10th November 2017 Country Life Review of Place-making (1st November 2017)
Dear all, I've just seen a rather pleasing review of Place-making in Country Life (1st November 2017)
I hope it will reassure you that you have made a wise purchase. George Plumptre (the reviewer) says the book is a bit of a difficult read. I hope you haven't found it to be so. Dense perhaps, and challenging, particularly as it revisits our preconceptions about Brown, I find that a couple of…18th July 2017 The Brown Advisor is for museums! Arise the Repton Gazette
It is only now that I can break the news to paid-up enthusiasts for Brown that there was always a bigger plan, not just to re-establish Brown, the great master, in the national consciousness, but through his work to bring to public attention landscape itself and the great English tradition of which he was the leading light. Connoisseurs of Brown will already be familiar with the Brown Advisor (http…10th June 2017 At last!
I hope you've received a copy of Place-making by now. I hope too that it will prove worth the wait - worth the weight? - it is a very much reduced version of the manuscript, and I hope also therefore that that refining process has not made it unreadably dense. Finally I hope that the argument I present will be coherent, novel and persuasive, and that we will live to see landscape take its place amongst…29th January 2017 Good news on the blog, less good on Place-making
One or two people have asked and I am no longer certain that Place-making will be out in February - we are at present finalising the index - but it will be out - be in no doubt of that!
However I am now tidying up the Brown Advisor (http://thebrownadvisor.com/) and this will shortly result in a new set of categories to help people navigate the blog, It is still getting around 1,000 visitors per…8th November 2016 Compton Verney (18th November) and the first review
A couple of things.
An amazingly positive review has come in from Tim Richardson in the Literary Review. (https://literaryreview.co.uk/earthly-delights)
It should reassure you that the book exists and is on its way. I only hope you'll enjoy it as much as I did. It's like the first sign of Spring before we've even had winter.
For those of you who can't come to the launch of the Rizzoli book…18th October 2016 Correction - also an invitation
Dear all, I have it hot from Historic England that they are now putting back the publication date for Place-making to February 2017. It's not exactly tercentennial, but none the worse for that I hope. My apologies to all those who had hoped to nod over their pledged volumes by the fire after Christmas dinner.
Let me offer by way of compensation an invitation to the book launch of the companion…5th October 2016 Lest you be confused
I cannot speak for you, but in my house Capability Brown's tercentenary rolls towards a cvrescendo, with timpani and trumpets. First the Brown Advisor has now posted his 292nd note (http://thebrownadvisor.com/). The target that fits the year (300) is within sight. The Tatler's Waste-bin however is still open for additional questions. Second, the fifth edition of the list of sites attributed to Brown…22nd February 2016 I feel remiss
I feel remiss at not sending any words of encouragement to you when you have pledged to buy my book. The fact is that I have been editing a blog in which questions that I receive about Brown get responses. Try http://thebrownadvisor.com/ and note that I have now restored to it a button that enables you to subscribe and hence get sent an email every time a new post goes up. It's hard to resist.…
These people are helping to fund Place-making: The Art of Capability Brown, 1716-1783.
Dr Marion Harney