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Book Review: Capability Brown in Kent

Kent Gardens Trust, KGT bookCapability Brown in Kent, (York Publishing Services, May 2016), 116 pages, paperback, fully illustrated, £9.50, ISBN 978-0-9934044-0-5

Looking at the magnificent aerial photograph that introduces this slender book, I was immediately struck by a number of features it contains that get right to the heart of Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown, his enduring fascination and his continuing importance.

First, the view is one of quintessential English countryside – or so it seems – of a type that you can discover in virtually any English county, so uniquely widespread was Brown’s area of activity. Second, despite its appearance of rural timelessness, the view is of countryside inside the M25 motorway, a swathe of suburban England where it is remarkable that such a scene has survived for some 250 years. And third, although it has not survived intact and the house whose setting it provided is long gone, there are unmistakeable signs of Brown’s brilliant craft such as the sinuous water and arched bridge.

As a one-time Trustee of Kent Gardens Trust I am delighted that my successors have added this scholarly contribution to the celebration of the tercentenary of his birth. The details that emerge about the five commissions that he undertook in the county present a thought-provoking microcosm of his enormous oeuvre and illustrate the key themes that resonate through his career: his skills as a water engineer; his preference for particular trees; his enthusiasm for walled gardens; his work as an architect; and not least the network of clients for whom he worked, linked by aristocratic lineage and the surging wealth of the 18th century.

Although the book only covers a modest group of Brown’s landscapes it presents a well rounded picture of the man and his career and makes an elegant contribution to the celebrations of his tercentenary. None of the five landscapes survive intact, only one of the original houses survives and all have drastically changed surroundings. But there is no question that they demonstrate the unique contribution that Brown continues to make to the patchwork of the English landscape, 300 years after his death.

George Plumptre