He made the earth move

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 43, Summer 2015

Page 20

He made the earth move

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 43, Summer 2015

Page 20

'Capability' Brown put the British art of landscaping on the map. And there is nowhere better than Blenheim Palace to appreciate
his vision. Clive Aslet surveys the scene

It has been said that the landscape park is Britain's greatest contribution to the visual culture of Europe, and nobody was more associated with this achievement than Lancelot 'Capability' Brown. Born in 1716, he not only transformed swathes of rural England in the mid-18th century, he also helped his countrymen to see their land with fresh eyes.

Fortunately for a man who began life as a gardener, he came to maturity at a time when the political elite were consumed by a passion for both architecture and gardening. Even so it must have taken someone of great determination, persuasive ability and tact to keep his powerful clients committed to his schemes throughout the vicissitudes of political life. We know little of him as a man, and he left scant documentation as to his ideas. His legacy, however, can be seen in scores of country houses across Britain, their proud façades reflected in the waters of a lake, the distant horizon crowned with belts of trees.

Brown was the leading exponent of a new idea in gardening. The ideal of the previous generation had been to place the country house at the center of an elaborate geometrical scheme of parterres, avenues, tightly clipped hedges and straight canals. The greater the subjugation of nature – seen in the contortions she was made to perform through, for example, elaborate topiary – the more the result was admired. In the early 18th century, this approach was turned on its head by artists and taste makers who believed that the garden ought to become natural, while the wider landscape – nature – could be gardened. In this they were inspired by paintings they had seen on the Grand Tour in Italy. By dint of digging, earth-moving, planting trees and sweeping away every vestige of the rigid Baroque garden, parklands beneath gray English skies could be made to resemble the Roman Campagna, as depicted by Claude Lorrain. One of the ultimate expressions of this 'Picturesque' movement is the park at Blenheim Palace in Oxfordshire, and Brown's vision for it can be seen in a rare drawing to be sold by Bonhams in London's Old Master Paintings Sale in July.

Blenheim is generally regarded as Brown's masterpiece. It was also, arguably, where the Picturesque was born. In 1709, Sir John Vanbrugh, while building the palace for the 1st Duke of Marlborough, undertook the restoration of the ruined manor house for his own occupation in the adjacent village of Woodstock. Since this was financed with money that would otherwise have been spent on Blenheim itself, he had to justify his actions to the redoubtable Duchess Sarah; the result, he claimed, would not only preserve the building, but enhance the scenery of the park, by creating as good a view as any 'Landskip painter' could create. Alas for Vanbrugh, his attempt to save Woodstock Manor was roundly rebuffed: years later, when he wanted to show his work at Blenheim to a party of friends, he was refused admittance and had to wait for them at an inn. Rather than restoring the manor house, the Duchess had it torn down. By a stroke of irony, its stones were used to build the Grand Bridge that Vanbrugh had designed – the avowed object of which was to lead to the manor house, which, of course, no longer existed. And so the road over the Grand Bridge led nowhere, while the bridge itself, spanning a puny and soon unfashionable canal, became the subject of ridicule. A minnow would look like a whale in comparison, scoffed Alexander Pope in verse. The wit Horace Walpole thought that, "like the beggars at the old duchess's gate, [it] begs for a drop of water and is refused". Ouch.

Walpole wrote those words in 1760. Perhaps they wounded the pride of the 4th Duke, who loved Blenheim, because four years later he commissioned Brown, then in his late thirties, to provide a suitably imposing expanse of water for the bridge to span. Brown would work there for a decade, receiving the then enormous sum of £15,450.

Presumably a large workforce was maintained for the duration. By now, Brown was an experienced improver, with a formidable list of clients. His career had been astounding. Having grown up in a Northumbrian village, he had begun his working life, aged 16, as a gardener for the local squire. His break came after two years when he was appointed as under-gardener at Lord Cobham's Stowe, in Buckinghamshire, just at the time it was being developed into Britain's first and greatest garden of allegory and ideas. His work there involved realizing the caprices of William Kent, the mercurial one-time theater designer who had transformed himself into a connoisseur, an authority on gardens and a Palladian architect, under the patronage of Lord Burlington. By 1749, Brown, having imbibed Kent's ideas – and perhaps some of his self-confidence – set up on his own. After a couple of years, he was continuously in demand. He worked on nearly 150 estates, mercilessly destroying the avenues and Baroque parterres that had previously adorned them, in favor of developing their naturalistic 'capabilities' – hence his sobriquet of Capability Brown. By the time of his death in 1783, he had 'improved' nearly 150 estates, freeing country houses of the visual encumbrances that surrounded them (not only Baroque gardens, but old villages and market towns).

At Blenheim, Brown arrived to find Vanbrugh's palace rising practically from a wasteland. The water features were particularly dismal. It was here that Brown focused his efforts, opening holes in the banks, grading back the adjacent ground so that water would flow over it, and lining the bottoms with clay. Eventually there was a dam, from which water cascaded back into the river Thames. He could not have known it, but these works fulfilled the ambition of the 1st Duchess, who told the Duke of Somerset that she planned both a cascade – "finest & largest that ever was made" – and a lake: "I will have swans & all such sort of things." Thanks to Brown, the Grand Bridge affected visitors of quivering sensibility to an extent that even he could not have predicted: to the Bloomsbury Group man of letters, Lytton Strachey, it positively gave "one an erection". According to legend, Brown said of his labors: "Will the Thames ever forgive me?"

The result was a landscape of immense lawns, of which the centerpiece was the palace. As Jane Brown observes in her biography, Lancelot 'Capability' Brown: The Omnipotent Magician, the best way to see it was by horseback, or in a fast-moving two-wheeled curricle, so that the view seemed always to change – an effect that might these days be described as 'filmic'. A clump of trees appears, then a cedar of Lebanon or two – while in the distance might have been seen a castellated wall, as shown in the drawing at Bonhams. This rare piece of Brown's handiwork evokes thoughts of a medieval past – much as Vanbrugh's mock fortifications at Castle Howard in Yorkshire had recalled, to susceptible imaginations, the Roman camp which had once been there.

Although the wall was never realized, the drawing provides us with the earliest view north-eastwards across the new lake, a reminder, in some ways, of the patience demanded of Brown's patrons: while the Baroque gardens with which they had grown up could be removed in short order, it took generations for some of the newly planted trees to reach maturity. During their own lifetimes, little could be seen of the investments that were made beyond earthworks and saplings. That is why the lake, as seen in the drawing, looks relatively bare. Later generations, including our own, were to be the beneficiaries of Brown's genius and his patrons' pockets. Eventually, as the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography comments, the images created by Brown would become "as deeply embedded in the English character as the paintings of Turner and the poetry of Wordsworth". The timescale envisaged, as well as the scope of the works, is another reason to hold Capability in awe.

Clive Aslet is Editor at Large of Country Life magazine.

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