Looking for Mr Brown
Written by Steffie Shields, Chairman, Association of Gardens Trusts
What does one look for when arriving in a park where some design has been attributed to ‘Capability’ Brown (1716-1783)? His real name was Lancelot. His famous and appropriate nickname distinguished him from other Mr Browns, but there was much more to him than a nickname. Even so this Mr Brown has provoked a plethora of myths, legends and aesthetic criticisms and it can be hard ‘to see the wood for the trees’. Make up your own mind. Start with the ground. Look at the levels. Look at the line of the approach drive, the edge of the water, the edge of the plantation? Do these features relate to each other? How many pleasing serpentine ‘lines of grace’ can you find? Is anything straight? Are there any mounds in the wider terrain that might be man-made, moulded with the spoil from digging out a lake or widening a river?
Information here on Parks and Gardens UK will help start your hunt. You will discover all those Brown landscapes that are open to the public. Go further afield, still from your armchair, on Google Earth to home in on a Brown park from the air or with wartime aerial photographs. Compare with other sites to find common denominators. What makes a Brown park stand out from the rest?
As you look, ask yourself questions. Is there an almost imperceptible slope of lawn, cobbled courtyard or drive away from the house? Does this slope lead to a curvaceous and extensive ha- ha, making the house seem as the pivot of a grand stage? Where does the ha-ha lead? Is there a direct approach or a snaking barrel drive approaching the house at an oblique angle? Is your eye lead easily in any single direction towards a feature, be it temple seat or church spire, or horizon clump of trees? Are there winding gravel walks? Is the kitchen garden hidden well away from the house behind trees and shrubbery? Is the foreground to the house a sweeping expanse of empty lawn?
Contemplate the scale of the water. Where does it enter and how does it leave the site? Where is it in relation to the house? Is it a man-made reservoir with a circuit path or a natural rushing river that has been tamed by a cascading weir into a smooth, reflective mirror? Is it a series of lakes on different levels made to look as if a never-ending river through the landscape? Is there a sham bridge to hide the changing level of the lakes? Is there both open space with clean verges to the lake and narrow, intimate tree-line and secluded, tapering channels? Are there one or more islands? Ask yourself how and why Brown created them. Can you spot discreet openings of underground stone-lined or brick-lined conduits draining into the lake? Is there an icehouse nearby?
Spotting surviving elements of Brown's planting is equally, if not more, complicated. You need to be able to recognise tree species, so take along a pocket tree guide to be sure. Try to disregard all trees that have been introduced since his day, Atlantic (blue) cedar, Wellingtonia or monkey puzzle for instance. Pare the scene down in your mind. Remember, in comparison to the great variety in modern planting, Brown worked with a more reduced palette, mostly native species: oak, lime, elm, ash, Scots pine, hawthorn, yew and box, Holm oak, sweet chestnut, rowan and white willow.
By the 1750’s, as Brown was establishing his wide-ranging landscape improvement and architectural practice in London, the range of available trees had expanded. So add the following trees into the Brown equation: beech, horse chestnut, European sycamore, larch, Austrian pine and Norway spruce, intermixed with American conifers and oaks. True, Brown’s pleasure grounds, short-lived flowering trees, shrubs, and yes, roses, together with trees such as silver birch, have long since disappeared. In addition, in close proximity to the house, you might find imported, now veteran, exotic trees such as Cedar of Lebanon, Cypress, Ginkgo biloba, oriental plane, and false acacia. Purple beech was first introduced in 1770. Do any of Brown’s survive majestic in an isolated focal position? You might sense some pleasure ground area or plantation has been kept, managed and re-planted, that might still have some of his yews or traces of box and Portuguese laurel in amongst later planting. Alders too are not long-lived – but you might find old alder coppice near to his waters.
Look out for horizon oak and beech belts enclosing the park, and controlling the vistas. Significant rounded clumps of mixed species, or single variety, and punctuated groves or individual veteran specimen trees might still feature in key positions, sometimes in threes. Notice, for example, where Scots pines are positioned. What tree serves as a gate guardian welcome? Often there are good trees in good places and key to his composition - in a fold of land, on the brow of a hill, at asymmetric positions either side of the approach drive, or screening untidy offices. Is there an obvious rhythm to the planting? A sense that nothing disturbs the eye?
About 260 landscapes have been attributed to Brown, some such as Burghley with works over many years, others little more than a day’s consultation from the celebrated journeyman improver, engineer and architect. You will find the list on this website. It seems unlikely now that there are any more to be discovered. Some sites have long since been built over, the trees cropped, the design decimated by large-scale farming. Perhaps the only clues to Brown having been involved are found in a remnant lodge or a place name such as Lancelot Drive in Barnet, North London. What is the origin of Capability Green near Luton in Bedfordshire? Look out for local names that might just connect to the Mr Brown. Could Browntoft Lane in Donington, Lincolnshire, be where Brown owned land, bequeathed to his second son John in his will? Is there some connection with his work at Chatsworth at Brown End Farm, near Waterhouses, in Derbyshire? Researchers have yet to find the answer to whether there is a connection with Brown Knowl in Cheshire or with Brown’s Oaks at Casewick (a feature on a nineteenth century geological survey). Tell me if you come across any more such examples!
www.imagesofengland.org.uk/), an English Heritage website, is an asset for those interested in his architecture. Trawl here to find if any of your chosen site’s buildings are attributed to Brown, be they icehouse, bath-house, church, bridge, grotto, dairy, temple or lodge, service tunnel or walled garden! Where are his surviving houses or those he radically altered?Images of England (
The National Archives (www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/a2a/), will locate associated surviving letters, accounts and plans. Check national art gallery websites and http://www.bbc.co.uk/arts/yourpaintings/ to see whether an artist recorded his landscapes in the late eighteenth or early nineteenth century when coming into glorious maturity or, later, the first photographers capturing his special sense of place. Surprising what Google will find. Compare such paintings, drawings and the records of early photographers with, if possible, the same setting before his radical changes, and then again with today’s current views, to appreciate what, if anything, remains of Brown’s design. JMW Turner, Britain’s greatest landscape artist, began painting watercolour views of Nuneham Courtenay, in Oxfordshire, at the age of 12 - and went on to paint other prestigious Brown settings in his prime, including Harewood (Yorkshire) , Petworth (Sussex) and Syon (Middlesex).
By attending to every detail and simplifying the scene, Brown created great and useful space. This encouraged his clients, their families and their visitors to look for picturesque vistas. They learned to read his landscapes which they found exceedingly pleasurable, both relaxing and thought-provoking. Garden-visiting was fast becoming a sport. That is how, after Brown’s death in 1783, Humphry Repton (1752 –1818) first followed on in his designing footsteps, helped by the plans donated to him by Henry Holland Jr.
Despite the passage of time, it is still possible, and enjoyable, for us to do the same as Repton, to identify, inspect and assess the aesthetic value of Brown’s surviving legacy. Go out and explore his landscapes before the last remnants of his work disappear. As you wander, you might ponder on the scale of his capable and rigorous vision which continues to influence the making of beautiful, natural landscape vistas in the contemporary world ... and their ongoing management....
Copyright: Steffie Shields