Tomorrow's Books: Book Reviews

THE OMNIPOTENT MAGICIAN

Jane Brown

What’s in a nickname? If Capability Brown is by far the best known of all British landscape designers – and, indeed, of all Browns apart from the recent Prime Minister – it must be due in part to his unique and memorable cognomen.  It comes as a surprise to discover that there is no record of it being used in his lifetime, and that after his death he was all but forgotten for the best part of two centuries. To separate the man from his reputation for seeing ‘great capabilities’ in every terrain, his new biographer (no apparent relation) doggedly refers to him throughout by his Christian name, Lancelot.
     He was born, probably in Northumberland, in 1716. His father William – the estate manager for a progressive landowner, Sir William Loraine – died only four years later, but the family was taken care of by his employer. Lancelot was apprenticed as a gardener, and had access to Loraine’s library, which included John Evelyn’s influential book on trees, Sylvana.
     At 23 he headed south, meeting his future wife Biddy en route, and fetched up at Stowe, where he was put in charge of constructing a great ha-ha for Viscount Cobham, an arch-exponent of the military style of garden popular at the time. By the time of Cobham’s death in 1749, Brown was ready to strike out on his own. He rode off in search of great houses where his talents might be needed, and within a few years had so many commissions that he required treatment for nervous exhaustion. The roll call of estates associated with him is extraordinary: Longleat, Croome, Petworth, Burleigh, Syon House, Chatsworth, Blenheim, Luton Hoo, Audley End and Alnwick Castle are just a few of them.
     Clearly, he had a remarkable gift. De la Rochefoucauld, visiting England in 1784 (the year after Brown’s death), was told that ‘Le Brun’ had needed only an hour’s ride through a park to conceive a design for it, which he could then mark out in half a day. But his success was also due, Jane Brown argues, to the goodwill of important figures who became his friends – among them William Pitt the Elder, Thomas Gray and David Garrick.
     He had the luck, too, to be in the right place at the right time. Many of the heirs to England’s great houses had returned from the Grand Tour determined to transform their surroundings, and the arrival of hitherto unknown trees from America provided the designer with a new palette. The age had a fascination with water – of which Brown was a master, creating more than 150 ornamental lakes – while the wars being waged by Britain around the world increased the appeal of the calm, sheltered environments Brown created.
     Part of his achievement was to gain recognition for his calling, though it was not until after his death that the term ‘landscape gardener’ was coined (by Humphrey Repton). At the beginning of Brown’s career there was no recognised figure to bridge the gap between the architect who designed a house and the gardener who dug potatoes: such was the puzzlement over his role that he was sometimes called upon to supervise building sites.  Even the word ‘landscape’ (from the Dutch ‘landskip’) had yet to gain common currency.
     His survival into his late sixties is remarkable given that he was an asthmatic who led a punishing life, much of it on the road between different projects. His death brought extravagant tributes, though some reviled him as a ‘destroyer’ who tamed the English landscape and flooded it wherever he could. How far his taste differed from the next generation’s can be judged from his dismissal of the Peak District as ‘beyond comparison uglier than any other I have seen in England’. His consequent fall into obscurity lasted until 1950, when the garden historian Dorothy Stroud disinterred his legacy and rehabilitated him.
     What Jane Brown does well is put her subject in context. She paints a particularly vivid picture of Hammersmith, where he settled in the 1750s, as a busy village whose river views informed his feeling for serpentine water. The politics of the time – with their consequences for his patrons – are explained with great clarity.
     The book’s problem is that it too often lapses into a catalogue of his projects and the noble families who commissioned them. About the character behind the work we learn little, except that he was amiable and fond of puns, loved his family and occasionally lost his temper with difficult clients. It’s a shame, too, that the author’s delight in her subject is only really evident in the prologue and chapter notes. The Omnipotent Magician is a valuable work of reference, but as a portrait it fails: its hero remains simply a figure in a landscape.

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