The ‘Capability’ of Landscape

As we draw near to the third centenary of Lancelot Brown, many garden enthusiasts and landscape theoreticians dwell on the ‘sublime’ parks he created [1]. ‘Capability’ Brown, a master landscape gardener or ‘place maker’, as asserted by himself, was also a figure of controversy. Brown worked prodigiously in England and Wales, reputedly having 216 parks and gardens attributed to his work [2]. He was engaged by many of the wealthiest land owners of the country to create a ‘natural’ landscape for their estates. The distinguishing feature of a ‘Brownian’ park were the sweeping lines, a removal of formal geometric gardens, curvilinear lakes and water features. To achieve the liminal transition between house and borrowed landscape the ha ha was employed. His style rejected the formality of the Jacobean garden resplendent in its French adornment. The new utopian parks would become a distinctive British landscape, free of an oppressive Francophile influence.

Audley End- Brown began work at Audley End for Sir John Griffen Griffen in 1764. Sir John is reputed to have been one of Brown’s most difficult clients on account of a dispute over outstanding payments. Left : Modern Ariel view of Audley End House and Gardens,Essex, Source: Google Maps 2014; Right: Audley End Lancelot’s plan of 1763, Source: English Heritage.

This nationalistic construct had as much to do with political paranoia as it did with a creative movement in design. Proponents of a Brownian improved park regarded its detractors as facilitators to the anarchism of Jacobin revolution in France [3]. Conversely exponents of the conservative view of landscape, such as Richard Payne Knight and Uvedale Price, regarded the neo-classical English garden as a version of despotism. The ruling Whigs, extoling liberal economics and individualism, also employed the hand of Lancelot Brown to create an improved landscape, often decanting its inhabitants. The great estate of Milton Abbey was made possible by moving the old market town and relocating it some distance and out of sight from the new mansion [4]. The ‘levelling business’ as it became familiarly known as was a necessary art to define the mercantile acquisition of private property.

Changing Milton Abbas. Left: Milton Abbas. Plan of former town. Detail from estate map by W. Woodward. 1769–1771, Source: British History Online; Right: Birds Eye view of relocated village of Milton Abbas
Changing Milton Abbas. Left: Milton Abbas. Plan of former town. Detail from estate map by W. Woodward. 1769–1771, Source: British History Online; Right: Birds Eye view of relocated village of Milton Abbas

Paradoxically, the conservative Alexander Pope, a frequent visitor to Stowe, was much impressed by the quintessentially whiggish Estate of Lord Cobham. Here, where Brown himself worked until 1751, became a scene of political satire played out in the gentility of a garden. Pope, a Tory by persuasion, would have walked through Brown’s mentor William Kent’s Elysian Fields. Designed in 1730 this area of the garden housed the Temple of the Ancient Virtue containing statues of Socrates, Homer, Lycurgus and Epaminondas. This contrasts with the Temple of Modern Virtue. Lord Cobham’s political rival Sir Robert Walpole was represented here as a headless figure, in its modern ruin of amoral governance.

Elysian Fields. The Temple of Venus on the edge of Eleven Acre Lake at Stowe, Source: National Trust; (photographer: Andrew Butler)
Elysian Fields. The Temple of Venus on the edge of Eleven Acre Lake at Stowe, Source: National Trust (photographer: Andrew Butler)

On leaving Stowe, as head gardener, to pursue his own career as a commercial garden designer, Brown left little by way of a corpus. Instead, he left that to writers of the day to elaborate upon the theoretical symbolism of landscape. As a prodigious gardener, not of aristocratic means, he most likely did not seek to challenge his patron’s political views. In any case, his work flourished as he became the celebrity British garden designer of his time. Following his death the ‘naturalistic’ style fell out of favour, though not necessarily all of the whiggish liberal ideals which had allowed it to flourish.

Brown did not work in Ireland but contemporaneous houses and gardens were influenced by his work. One example of a neo-classical garden in the ‘natural’ style is found at Florence Court, Co. Fermanagh.

Florence Court House, a Brownian inspired garden by created in 1789 by William King for the 1st Earl of Enniskillen, National Trust, Co Fermanagh with ha ha to the foreground
Florence Court House, a Brownian inspired garden by created in 1789 by William King for the 1st Earl of Enniskillen, National Trust, Co Fermanagh with ha ha to the foreground. Source: McAleer & Teague Resotration

The landowners of these great Irish estates were not without their critics. Edmund Burke described the ruling class of Ireland as a ‘Junto’ [3]. Alongside the renewed interest in the legacy of Brownian landscapes with the forthcoming tercentenary, it would seem that it’s influence in a colonial context is also thought provoking.

Authored by: Rachael Byrne, PhD student, Geography, Trinity College Dublin

References:

1. Brodey, I.S. (2013). Ruined by Design: Shaping Novels and Gardens in the Culture of Sensibility, Taylor & Francis.

2. Gregory, J , Spooner, S, Wiliamson, T. (2013). Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown. A Research Impact Review prepared for English Heritage by the Landscape Group, University of East AngliaEnglish Heritage Research Report Series, no.50.

3. Everett, N. (1994). The Tory View of Landscape, Yale University Press.

4. Richardson, T. (2011). The Arcadian Friends, Transworld.

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