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Book Review: Moving Heaven and Earth

Moving Heaven coverSteffie Shields, Moving Heaven and Earth: Capability Brown's Gift of Landscape (Unicorn Publishing Group, 2016) £30

The work of Lancelot “Capability” Brown has been described in many books and articles, as is shown by the very comprehensive bibliography to this work. Steffie Shields, who has been researching Brown’s work for over thirty years, offers a new perspective by providing in-depth discussion of the many practical problems he faced when implementing his grand designs.  The text is enhanced by the author’s excellent photographs.

Shields describes many of Brown’s completed landscapes – ranging from the very grand at Croome and Blenheim, to the very small such as Garrick’s riverside garden at Twickenham, painted so vividly by Zoffany.  She also covers Brown’s relationship with his clients in detail. It is particularly interesting to read how a formal business contract often led to a long-lasting and influential friendship, the best example being between Brown and  the Earl of Coventry at Croome. Extracts of appreciative letters about Brown and his work are scattered throughout the book. In another example, before going abroad, Lord Palmerstone at Broadlands recorded that he “only settled the plans with Brown, and have left everything in the execution of them to him”.  Brown’s genial relations with and willingness to cooperate with his fellow practitioners is illustrated by his association with Sanderson Miller. 

On occasion, the progress from one key contract to another seems a little breathless in the book, with references to particular projects appearing in different sections of the book. It might have been better to describe each landscape in detail on its own, but perhaps this reflects the rather breathless life Brown led in travelling extensively throughout the country to visit clients who required new plans while also supervising existing projects. He never stopped.  Steffie Shields’ research, particularly in the archives at Burton Constable, Petworth and Tottenham, shows how Brown was committed to his plans for many years; he made twenty-seven refinements over a period ten years at Burton Constable.

Brown was pragmatic and able to achieve so much because he carefully selected, trained and supported a team of reliable assistants. Many of those who worked for him went on to establish their own practices. He would call in local county surveyors and he was not averse to using others’ surveys or designs as a basis for his own modifications.  The plan at Kirtlington, for example, is endorsed “Greening’s plan totally changed by Brown”. At a time when unskilled navvies were in short supply, Brown cajoled idle soldiers of the North Staffordshire Regiment to help with “muck-moving” on the King’s land at Richmond.  Where manual workers might be attracted by the higher pay working on canals or roads in the more industrial areas of England, Brown would take practical steps to see they were better paid working on his schemes. For example, at Trentham he recorded “Should we be drove to the Necessity of giving a shilling (say £7 today) a day to the Labourers the advanced Expenses of it is understood that the Earl should bear one Half of it and Brown the other”.

Such details as the number of trees ordered for a particular design emphasise the scale of Brown’s works: 14,000 beech and 21,000 oaks at Tottenham. As Viscount Torrington wrote to his brother, the Duke of Portland, “...we are to begin a nursery as that is the most Essential accessory you know….”.  On one visit to Burton Constable Brown provided both acorns and beech mast to start a new nursery.  He also experimented with newly introduced trees – the hybrid Lucombe Oak is found at several sites; the Hungarian oak at Peper Harow; Scots pines (Pinus sylvesris) were widely planted as were the imported Australian pine (Pinus nigra).  

Brown was not only involved in landscape design; a chapter on “The Kitchen Garden” deals with an aspect of his work that will be new to many readers. Lord Warwick, writing to the Earl of Guildford, commented that, “As to the kitchen gardens, he can scarce want practice in them for in about ten years he has made upwards of 30 and sees them well stocked and not only that, but recommended proper gardeners to take care of them and also seen that they did so”.  Brown was always ready to recommend “proper gardeners” and there are interesting chapters on Brown’s advice on the use of shrubs and flowers. The ubiquitous Rochefoucauld brothers summed up his work, “The effect is one of neatness and harmony”.

Water – drainage and lake-making – were nearly always significant aspects of Brown’s plans and there are separate chapters on “Lake-Making”, “Cascades” and “Problems and Pumps” that describe various seemingly mundane but very important ways of dealing with problems. Some interesting examples include using elm pipes because elm does not rot under water; draining the boggy land at Petworth by building underground conduits to feed a new pond; the paving, under turf, of the edge of lakes to ensure that they would not be broken down by livestock; strategic maintenance such as regularly lowering the water level for silt clearance. The design of the water features at Luton Hoo for the Earl of Bute was the biggest commission after Blenheim and there is a detailed description of the improvements there over fourteen years at a cost then of £10,000 (say £1,361,000 now) for damming the River Lea, constructing two lakes, building an engine house, constructing an island, building a new approach road and constructing a 30 foot high cascade to allow for flood control.

Brown’s architectural work, alone and in conjunction with the Hollands father and son (the latter being a son in law), is described in some detail. Their designs had the merit of providing comfort and convenience as well as display. At Broadlands, they converted a seventeenth-century house by squaring its E-shape into a classical Italianate villa; at Nuneham Courtenay, a third storey was added to each of the two original wings of the villa; for Mrs Elizabeth Montagu, the blue-stocking, he made “a fan light over the East window so that the arch formed by the trees is now visible. The rooms are the most beautiful imaginable”; and at Croome, he designed the house and garden, dismantled the church to allow for a new stable block, and then rebuilt the church in bath stone in advanced plain Gothic style before Robert Adam re-plastered the interior. Nikolaus Pevsner considered the church as “one of the most serious of the Early Gothic Revival outside, one of the most elegant inside”.  At Compton Verney, the chapel was too close to the new classical house and blocked the view to the lake. So all of the Verney monuments and the 16th century glass were transferred to Brown’s restrained Italianate alternative whose round-headed windows accorded with those in the house’s south front and which, conveniently, hid the walled garden. 

Brown had his detractors when alive.  James Paine, one of the first architects to establish an independent practice for clients as opposed to patrons, wrote sarcastically that “…with the great architect of Nature, so we have a genius of this kind, who, after having been...confined...to the serpentine walks of horticulture, emerge, at once, a compleat architect…”. Sir William Chambers, possibly jealous of Brown’s position at Hampton Court, as the King’s Gardener, wrote “It cannot be expected than men uneducated, and doomed by their condition to waste the vigor of life in hard labour should ever go as far in so refined, so difficult a pursuit” as architecture.  But there were admirers abroad. Catherine the Great of Russia was so inspired by Brown’s designs that she commissioned the famous Frog service from Wedgwood illustrating the settings of great estates and wrote to Voltaire that “I passionately love gardens in the English style, the curved lines, the gentle slopes, the ponds pretending to be lakes…and I deeply disdain straight lines…”.

An Epilogue refers to the view of some critics after Brown’s death.  Humphry Repton was polite but distanced himself when writing in “Sketches and Hints on Landscape Gardening” by making selective criticisms of his predecessor’s style.  Sir Uvedale Price concluded that “he chose to make landscapes, of which he was worse than ignorant, for of them he had the falsest conceptions”.  Richard Payne Knight portrayed him as “This meagre genius of the bare and the bald”.  (Horace Walpole who was from time to time critical of aspects of Brown’s designs nonetheless felt that ”The abuse of Brown is as coarse and illiberal as it is cruel and unjust” ).

In more recent times Sir Reginald Blomfield, Thomas Mawson and even Lawrence Whistler felt that “he had few ideas and the chief of them was negative: to destroy formality wherever” found, adding for good measure that at Claremont “just as at Stowe, Kent enriched, then Brown ruined the scheme”. The 20th century designer David Hicks concurred “I find almost tragic the work of Capability Brown, who destroyed so many fine avenues and marvellous English gardens”. 

But such criticisms do not detract from the continuing admiration of Capability Brown’s  achievements as shown by the restorations at Stowe, Croome, Prior Park, Trentham and elsewhere.

Those viewing or restoring Brown’s designs in the future will now be much better informed. 

A Pugh-Thomas