Saturday, September 3, 2016

Capability Brown - dirty money funds the IKEA of landscape design

This year has been the tercentenary of Lancelot 'Capability' Brown, the eighteenth century landscape designer. So we have had lots of coverage in the garden, and other, media. As you have probably guessed, its not a subject that high on my radar otherwise I would have written about him before.

Brown was prolific, accomplished, technically skilled, highly competent and a good businessman. He also came from a relatively humble background, and we all like a good story of social mobility don't we? Especially in these times when this vital social factor is pretty bad, and even worse in the United States, which used to pride itself on this. As a topical aside, on the subject of social mobility try googling: Donald Trump, grandfather and brothel.

Brown has been labelled a vandal. I am sure anyone familiar with garden history will be familiar with the charge, but basically it is this: Britain, prior to his mid 18th century blitz around the landscapes of the wealthy, had a fine array of formal and quasi-formal gardens. Brown dug them all up, consigning the hedges and topiary to the flames and laid out rolling green acres, informal clumps of trees and lakes instead. His career did feature a series of style changes, and sometimes did work around existing features, but basically he did just do the same thing again and again. And again. And again. Very profitably, thank you.

The English landscape garden, of rolling green acres and little clumps of trees, was a huge innovation. But it was not Brown's. As Tim Richardson shows in his masterly and readable book The Arcadian Friends. Brown simply codified an existing trend, ironed out the originality and idiosyncratic artistry and commodified an idea. “The Brown brand resulted in a green monotony across England” he writes, and “formulaic”. Indeed. Especially as one of Brown's great innovations was the combining of hay-making or livestock rearing on land which previously had supported only lines of trees and non-agricultural grassland. This helped feed people I suppose, but it was a jolly good line to sell to landowners – 'be trendy and utilitarian and make money at the same time'.

I can't help feeling that we have lost an awful lot thanks to Brown. One only has to look at early 18th century Kip and Knyff landscape prints to realise just how much. Most of these would of course have changed or been degraded in time without Brown, but his impact must nevertheless have been enormous. The results are a kind of fake naturalism, looking rural because there are no straight lines. The average Brown landscape is successful because it takes the savannah-parkland look we are arguably hard wired to appreciate (thanks to our out-of-Africa heritage), and opens it out, giving it a stamp of the artistic.As any hedgerow ecologist will tell you, trees and grass are not necessarily  a particularly natural or biodiverse habitat.

Photographing Brown landscapes is remarkably difficult. They all look so unintentional, which is part of his skill as a designer of course. The pictures here are all of Berrington Hall, near Ludlow, Shrops. The little cloth figurine and teacup plantings were all from an exhibition there earlier in the year. (details sadly lost).

It was an African heritage friend (and garden historian) who asked me “where did all the money come from to employ Brown?”. Slavery of course. 18th century Britain had an economy that benefited enormously from slavery and the sugar trade, which was itself built on slavery. This was not by any means the worst episode of slavery in the world – the Romans and the Muslim world have been far worse, but it was the most hideous period in European history. So, next time you admire a Brown landscape, think about where the money comes from.


studio TOOP said...

Very interesting commentary on the formulaic nature of his work and the cost of that monotony. I hadn't fully realized this, but I can see it.

The commentary on the slavery, or just general colonialism, is sadly a much broader comment, however. Most Western cities that flourished in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries have similar roots.and then the pyramids in Egypt, and heck even those in the Mayan regions were all dependent on slavery and extreme disparity in wealth. I am not saying this is something we should celebrate, and certainly we should recognize the history. I think we should be careful not to throw out the baby with the bathwater though.

Gardenmad said...

My husband, who thought Brown was quite low born, to use a phrase, doesn't think he did all people claim he did he get there, only horseback or carriages, he must have been at these houses some of the time to supervise all the groundwork, he was head gardener at Stowe for ten years, they tell us, did he have time off to go to the other landscapes he was planning?

Brian Skeys said...

When you have seen one 'Brown' landscape you have seen the all. He must have died a rich man. William Robinson is more my garden hero. What are your thoughts on his writing and how relevant it is to gardening and the environment today?

Roger Brook - No Dig Gardener said...

Good to read your doubts about Brown, He was a very successful entrepreneur of his time. I have always been uncomfortable about his ethics which sometimes involved sweeping away the heart of rural communities.

Vanessa Gardner Nagel, APLD said...

Brilliant post, Noel. I appreciate the commentary and sentiment. Your post also explains why any of my previous English clients (in Portland, OR area) have been unable to give up even a smidgen of lawn.

Zoe edwards UK said...

I’m watching a Monty Don tv programme eulogising Capability Brown and just have to get this off my chest. Over the years, I have come to realise that Capability Brown was to my mind a destructive vandal. I absolutely adore the British countryside, can’t get enough of it but my heart sinks when I’m going to visit a country house and then I discover that the grounds have been “Capability Browned” as this informs me there will be little to see or enjoy in the gardens, just grass and trees with some ornamentation in the form of a building or bridge.. When I think of all the gardens destroyed to produce “countryside” I feel so upset at what he and his contemporaries did. I could perhaps forgive him, if he had left the the formal gardens and done “landscape” around the edges but invariably the grass will come almost right up to the country house.