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Book Review: A comparison of two books about Capability Brown

capability-rutherfordSarah Rutherford, Capability Brown and His Landscape Gardens (National Trust/Pavilion Books, 2016), £20. ISBNBrush-with-Brown-Bolton 9781909881549

Tim Scott Bolton, A Brush with Brown, The Landscapes of ‘Capability’ Brown (The Dovecote Press, 2016), £25. ISBN 9780992915131

These are birthday offerings for the tercentenary of Lancelot Brown’s birth (he was baptised on 30th August 1716) being widely celebrated this summer. Each is an impressive book – a handsome present or memento – and the historian Sarah Rutherford and the artist Tim Scott Bolton are both seeking the elusive genius of ‘Capability’ Brown in order to clarify exactly what we are celebrating. The approaches of the painter and the historian are vastly differing and perhaps somewhere between the two lies a gem of Brown’s rough magic.

Capability Brown and His Landscape Gardens sweeps along in the Georgians’ cultural ‘maelstrom’ for five chapters; Sarah Rutherford writes with the confidence of a reporting consultant (which she is) tempered by affection for her subject- at the end of chapter 1 ‘Brown, his world and his life’ she sums him up [p.44]:

           ‘Professionally he was a driven man, but in his home life his contemporaries had no mud to sling at him.  His was a happy family life, marred by bouts of illness, but he got up and out and back in the saddle as soon as he could.  His surviving correspondence is witness to how dearly he loved his wife and children.  Personally, his company was enjoyed by many of the highest in the land but he never became one of them . . .’

There is rather too much ‘indoor’ culture for me (Chippendale’s furniture, Grand Tours and a Georgian Rich List) which extends into chapter 2 ‘art, business and clients’; is this to win over country house visitors who love the paintings and furniture but ignore the soggy greenery outside the windows? Chapter 3 on Brown’s ‘secrets’ is a triumph, an exhilarating expose of serpentine drives, vistas, the ha-ha, river-stile lakes and pleasure grounds, all the coded concepts that bedevil the English Landscape Style;  the last two chapters are on Brown’s buildings, and on his rivals and successors.

The trouble with Brown is that he did so much, he worked in every English county except Cornwall. In the 1950s when Dorothy Stroud at the Soane Museum was unearthing ‘lost’ Brown parks by the dozen the National Trust was struggling with the leaking roofs of many Georgian houses; for decades the reasoning was that houses must be saved, as parks could always be restored – though of course they never were. Until the Great Storm of 1987 and the wholesale destruction of ancient trees frightened everyone, even the government, into funding restorations. The National Trust acquired Brown’s ‘university’ Stowe, and later his first important work, Croome Court, and these restorations, along with the parks of Petworth, Charlecote and Wimpole are among the most exciting Trust sites to visit this year. Sarah Rutherford is an accomplished guide, Capability Brown and His Landscape Gardens is a generous tribute and lavishly illustrated, but there is always the proviso that of her list of 53 Sites to Visit (p.188) less than a dozen are in the hands of the National Trust.

If the really big players in Brown’s world (Burghley, Chatsworth, Longleat, Sherborne, Harewood, Audley End and Blenheim for a start) are elsewhere then Tim Scott Bolton has painted them all for A Brush with Brown.  Here are more than forty places, arranged chronologically through Brown’s life, starting with a watercolour of Kirkharle church, and ending with Nuneham and Heveningham. Here are large landscapes in oils and smaller watercolour studies, mostly painted recently, but there is a precious 1982 watercolour of the view of Longleat from Heaven’s Gate through Brown’s great beeches that were felled in the 1987 Storm. The Dovecote Press have created a most elegant volume in landscape format, set in Baskerville and printed in Spain on a smooth cream paper (150 gsm Munken Pure) which is a delight to handle.

Tim Scott Bolton paints in the English landscape tradition, for instance he goes to some lengths to find the view that Girtin and Turner took of Harewood; like them he prefers to work standing at his easel though sometimes, wishing ‘to remain invisible a pochade box is an excellent alternative’. This allows him to sit with his canvas and palette on his knees, discreetly hidden from prying eyes or the irate gamekeeper. He recounts Brown’s adventures and his own at each place; most gloriously he captures (as no camera can) ‘the long shadows and the freshness of the morning’, the sunbeams, the sheen on waters, the scudding clouds and lowering cedars, the hogweed and  the soggy meadows, the vital textures of Brown’s world. These textures and the views were Brown’s stock-in-trade and his legacy; at his end in February 1783 he asked to be buried ‘in the earth that had sustained him’ - all through his life. 

Jane Brown, author of Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown, The Omnipotent Magician 1716-1783, Chatto & Windus 2011, Pimlico 2012.