More than capable

In the 1750s a group of people, led by the actor David Garrick, took it upon themselves to canonise Shakespeare. In doing so they ensured his place as the formative creator of England’s national identity and, when all else fails, as England’s irrefutable claim for global significance. This sanctification took place about 200 years after Shakespeare’s birth.

The time has now come to install another lower-middle-class provincial in the pantheon. Unlike Shakespeare’s, the achievements of the Northumbrian Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown (1716-1783) are not universally recognised, even though people in Britain enjoy his landscapes in their millions. Many of his landscapes are in the hands of public bodies with the power to see that his value is properly recognised. They are happy to echo the cry of Brown’s contemporary Thomas Gray that “It is not 40 years since the art was born among us; and it is sure that there was nothing in Europe like it”, and that of his friend Horace Walpole: “We have given the true model of gardening to the world. Let other countries mimic our taste.” Yet they, the public bodies with riches in their hands, do little or nothing.

At Compton Verney, the 18th-century house and landscape in central England, an exhibition entitled ‘Capability’ Brown and the Landscapes of Middle England beautifully illustrates the chasm between Brown’s international renown and the much lower level of acceptance that he has in British intellectual life today. It presents the great man not as an artist whose work would repay serious consideration but as an anthropological specimen, a quirky outgrowth of his century. Bits of equipment that Brown might have used are displayed in a series of cabinets akin to those in which 19th-century gentlemen kept their curiosities: a surveyor’s chain; a primitive theodolite; a plan here, a sketch there; a few photographs; none of them really explained.

The incoherence of the exhibition illustrates how difficult it is to get a grip on what Brown did and how his work is to be assessed and valued. But what is more striking is that the windows of Compton Verney are closed and shuttered, while all around, and designed to be seen from the house, is one of the most intelligent and deserving of all of Brown’s landscapes.

Brown did not just make landscapes grander than anyone else in his generation, he made bigger and better landscapes and he made more of them (at least 280, totalling more than 50,000 hectares). He inspired other men to take up landscape gardening as a career, he left generations of landowners with the belief that they could and should make parks in the same mode, and he gave this style – which came to be called the English landscape movement – sufficient momentum for it to sweep irresistibly over first England, then Britain, Europe and the world.

Anything was possible, mere scale was no bar to ambition and English parks were replicated everywhere – from the gardens of Lahore and Delhi, to Pushkin Park and Pavlovsk outside St Petersburg, to der Englischer Garten of Munich, to Ermenonville, Bagatelle and les jardins anglo-chinois of France, and to Central Park in New York, where Frederick Olmsted was to revive Brown’s ideal of a pastoral arcadia (the sheep were removed only in the 1930s). The royal parks of Sweden, Belgium and Poland – where would they be without the authority of Brown, this quiet Englishman? He was hailed in his day as a genius who, with a “poet’s feeling and painter’s eye”, could raise up visionary landscapes – even to a critic like the poet William Cowper he was the “omnipotent magician”.

One should not look to him as an originator of new forms – but he could fuse a wealth of techniques from the tradition that he inherited into a single coherent whole. He had the power to endow a country estate such as Wimpole, in the lacklustre topography of lowland Cambridgeshire, with a series of breath-taking views, each with their own distinct character. He provided equally varied rides and drives for his clients, turning mild slopes into hills and lakes into mighty rivers – and this in a landscape whose business was actually to be productive (chiefly of timber and grass), and in an overall design that remained dissociated and dream-like, giving no indication of the wealth of detail and energy that had been applied to it. It was this complete command of space, and of the weighting and distribution of the parts of a landscape, that meant he far excelled his contemporaries and all those who have come after him.

We should care about the low regard in which the art establishment holds Brown‘s work, especially now – for in 2016 we have the opportunity to celebrate the tercentenary of his birth. The stakeholders – the National Trust, English Heritage, Natural England and the English Tourist Board – still have time to co-ordinate a programme.

We only know when he was baptised (August 30 1716), so let’s say he was born on July 1 and let the National Trust set aside that day for fireworks in those of his parks that they own. The BBC, for its part, might put on a serious retrospective, showing what Brown did, why he did it, and what he was trying to achieve. There should be an exhibition in the Tate and the excellent Garden Museum in London should devote the entire year to his work.

Meanwhile, let us hope that in 2016 Compton Verney will open its windows to show off each of the six significant views. Paintings by Claude or Rosa or Dughet could be hung, to show the type of composition that Brown sought to recreate. Only by seeing his landscapes for real can you begin to comprehend their quality.

Even those who cannot appreciate Brown’s art cannot fail to appreciate his value: think what the sustainable, long-term return would be, of the impact on tourism if it were accepted that it is as culturally essential to go to Slough for Langley Park, to Dudley in the Midlands for Himley Park and to the once industrial Potteries for Trentham, as it is to see “The Birth of Venus” in Florence or the “Mona Lisa” in Paris. The minimal investment that would be required to give Brown and the English landscape the classic status they deserve does not compare with the cost of building the Olympic Park, which, after 10 days as a showpiece next summer, will rapidly dwindle into a municipal facility.

It would only be fair to end with some landscapes that demonstrate Brown’s excellence: the view to Berrington Hall from the Ashton Castle approach; the London approach from Pheasant Copse to Petworth; the Savernake riding at Tottenham House; the lakes at Kimberly, Ugbrooke and Wotton – and of course everything at Cadland. And there are plenty of other giants – at least 120 more that anyone who is serious about landscape must see before they die.

Johnny Phibbs is principal of Debois Landscape Survey Group, a consultancy that specialises in the management of historic landscapes

‘Capability Brown and the Landscapes of Middle England’, Compton Verney, until October 2,

Further interest

The Historic Houses Association,

The National Trust (Wimpole Hall, Berrington Hall, Petworth et al),

English Heritage,

Parks in St Petersburg,

Der Englischer Garten of Munich,

English parks in France (Ermenonville, Bagatelle),

Swedish Royal Parks (Haga and Drottningholm),

Belgian Royal Parks (Laeken),

Garden History Society,

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don't cut articles from and redistribute by email or post to the web.