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

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.

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.

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