Despite his irresistible name, Lancelot “Capability” Brown is not as well known in the United States as he deserves to be. Born 300 years ago in the far north of England, Brown spent most of his life turning the Western world’s ideal of a garden on its head.
Throughout history, Brown has been alternately venerated, vilified and ignored, but this year’s anniversary of his birth has generated an unprecedented interest in him and, moreover, a deeper understanding of the man, his work and his exulted place in landscape history.
Working between the 1740s and 1780s, Brown transformed scores of England’s finest country estates, sweeping away the Baroque terraces, geometric fountain ponds, and arrow-straight avenues rooted in French and Italian formalism. In their place, he contoured pastoral landscapes stretching for miles, and marked by lakes, woodland and pasture. If a hamlet detracted from his composition, he moved it. If a scene needed a new village, he placed one.
Brown’s most intrepid advocate, landscape architect and preservationist John Phibbs, ranks him alongside the poet William Wordsworth and the painter J.M.W. Turner in the pantheon of English artists, and this year’s comprehensive focus has served, he said, to “polish the halo.”
In addition to a festival of more than 50 exhibitions and guided tours at Brownian estates across England, Brown has been the subject of TV programs, several books and an academic conference at the University of Bath. Phibbs sees two more signs that Brown has finally made the big time. The United Kingdom’s mail service has issued commemorative stamps depicting his landscapes, and that holy shrine to British artists, Westminster Abbey, has approved a memorial fountain to Brown.
In the United States, Brown’s influence has been directly felt in such studied pastoral settings as Central and Prospect parks in New York, Victorian suburban cemeteries and, in Washington, on the sylvan Mall before its formal 20th-century makeover. Watch any major golf tournament on television and you’ll see touches of Brown in the links and lakes.
Before Brown, landscape designers sought to set their gardens apart from the countryside, the forest, the wilderness. Brown came along and made nature his subject.
“You can’t think about English drama without thinking about Shakespeare, so it is with Brown,” Phibbs said. “All work since Brown has been affected by Brown, either to endorse his ideas or react against them.”
The sheer scale and number of his commissions — Phibbs counts about 250 — altered the face of England and gave the world a landscape form that was adopted in North America, Continental Europe, Scandinavia and Russia. The architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner called the Brownian landscape park “England’s greatest contribution to the visual arts.”
Washington-based landscape historian Therese O’Malley, a speaker at the Bath conference, said the renewed interest in Brown has a broader value in raising the profile of historic landscapes generally.
“This is wonderful. It brings increasing public attention to the history and importance of landscape and garden design because people see the natural landscape and don’t understand that it was made,” said O’Malley, associate dean of the Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts at the National Gallery of Art.
If you have been to some of the great palaces of the British aristocracy — Blenheim, Chatsworth or Burghley House — you have seen Brown’s work. Or perhaps not, because his sculpting of the countryside seems so artless that it is often unnoticed. Brown’s nickname, Capability, derived from the way he extracted the potential or capabilities of a landscape, although its second reading as a measure of his skill was never far from the minds of his clients and admirers, nor from Brown himself.
A 1773 portrait shows the artist-engineer in his prime, with a long, peering face — ruddied by a life in the cool, damp English climate — and large brown eyes that seemed all seeing and all knowing. Neither peasant nor aristocrat, he sprang from lower social orders but had a gift of moving up and down the social ladder astutely.
Brown’s humble background, northern grit and self-assurance put his noble clients at ease, played to their vanity and persuaded them to reach deeply into their pockets.
“A rough Englishman seemed to be more honest, more authentic than an educated Frenchman,” said Phibbs, author of “Capability Brown: Designing the English Landscape.”
Brown launched his private practice in the mid-1700s, when Britain was becoming a global economic powerhouse at the dawn of the industrial age. It wasn’t just Brown’s notion of Arcadia that brought forth vast sweeps of meadows and fields. The gentry needed more grassland to feed horses and livestock as England’s road network developed, fox hunting took off and agriculture expanded. Grassy fields equated to wealth and income, and Brown’s style played beautifully into that.
A big man for his day, and given vainly to wearing black periwigs, Brown also was a shrewd businessman. He developed a complex, multidisciplinary practice that used a network of associate designers to oversee construction, a model followed by such contemporaries as the architect and interior designer Robert Adam and, in our day, multinational design firms such as Foster + Partners, founded by the architect Norman Foster.
New research into Brown’s account books shows that he was an extraordinary entrepreneur: Roderick Floud, an economic historian, calculated that Brown made the equivalent of $180 million on more than $1 billion in total receipts.
“It is time for Brown to be celebrated not just as a brilliant landscape designer but as one of the eighteenth century’s most successful businessmen,” Floud wrote in a paper published in October by the Royal Horticultural Society.
Brown has long been a polarizing figure in England. Critics have attacked him for razing fine 17th-century gardens and, ironically, for not being naturalistic enough. They wanted picturesque landscapes that were wilder and more rugged than Brown’s placid idylls.
But because his designs were so natural looking, Brown sank from sight through the 19th and much of the 20th centuries. His contemporary renaissance is rooted in “Capability Brown,” a 1950 biography by Dorothy Stroud, a fastidious researcher who inventoried his landscapes and showed him to be an accomplished neoclassical architect.
This isn’t to say there aren’t still fundamentally different views about Brown’s contributions. David Brown and Tom Williamson, authors of the new “Lancelot Brown and the Capability Men,” write that Brown may have been the best known practitioner of his craft, but also that he was one of a group of design contemporaries transforming 18th-century England. “The landscape park cannot be understood simply as the product of a single artist,” they say.
David Brown, who teaches landscape history at Cambridge University, said one of the myths is that Capability Brown rode the length and breadth of the land like Ross Poldark or Mr. Darcy “single-handedly transforming the English countryside.”
Phibbs argues that among the landscape revolutionaries of the day, Brown was the greatest and that when one of his longtime associates — Samuel Lapidge — struck out on his own, the results were “embarrassingly weak and tentative.”
Brown cut his teeth at a landscape garden named Stowe in Buckinghamshire, where he worked as the head gardener while still in his 20s. His mentor was a landscape artist named William Kent, who used Stowe and other commissions to create gardens that were radically pastoral but full of classical temples and full, too, of symbolism and political polemic. Part of the implied message of the style was that a pure, naturalistic garden embodied the unaffected and enlightened state of the freeborn Englishman.
Unlike Kent, who spent 10 years in Italy, Brown “made quite a show of not having traveled, and being native English, and thus being a kind of aboriginal if you like,” Phibbs said. “Part of his strength was he wasn’t influenced by France. He had sprung from the soil, as a native genius.” Brown freed himself of Kent’s Vetruvian principles of mathematical ratios and started sculpting panoramic landscapes for their romantic effect.
One of Brown’s fortes was damming streams or small rivers to create meandering lakes and ponds that read as great rivers where none flowed. Sometimes the dam was masked by a faux bridge. Such sculpting required great earthworking and hydraulic engineering, and Brown used techniques developed for the nascent industry of canal building. At an early project, Wotton House in Buckinghamshire, he formed a necklace of lakes, canals and artificial rivers that stretched for two miles.
Brown’s greatest lake was at Blenheim Palace. It took three years to construct, cost the equivalent of almost $50 million and is the defining landscape feature around the house. Where it runs under the existing Grand Bridge, Brown shaped the banks so artfully that it appears that the bridge was built at a natural narrowing of the water.
David Brown said in an interview that the tercentennial has led to the publication of a raft of new material on Brown that is forming a database that will shape further understanding of his life. At the Bath conference alone, scholars presented 17 papers on such subjects as diverse as Brown’s legacy in the United States and his influence on Hungarian gardens.
“Many people are much more aware of Brown and the times he lived in,” David Brown said, “and that has to be a good thing for anybody who loves gardens.”
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