A fairy circle... thanks to 'Capability' Brown

Written by Steffie Shields, Chairman, Association of Gardens Trusts

Denwick HillsDenwick Hills, near Alnwick. Northumberland, the landscape that first roused my curiosity. Copyright: Steffie ShieldsYou need a good dose of curiosity, the ability to look, and an open mind to think about sweeping space, if you wish to find a few surviving footprints of ‘Capability’ Brown (1716-1783)  in landscapes that are in constant flux. Having moved to Northumberland in 1987, the year of the almighty October hurricane, it was curiosity about the local terrain that led me to Alnwick Castle archives.  I naively thought I might easily find out exactly what the famous eighteenth century landscaper had achieved there.

The archivist Dr Colin Shrimpton showed me a small, unsigned eighteenth century sketch depicting the very corner of the landscape that had attracted my attention in the first place, the play of light on undulating sheep-dotted pastures at Denwick, the hills crowned with clumps of stately beech. There was little else to go on. He told me there were plenty of early photographs of the castle restoration, but other than a 1752 Canaletto painting, pre-Brown, nothing to show how what was once craggy moorland had developed into a memorable, pastoral landscape.
Link  to http://www.canalettogallery.org/Alnwick-Castle-at-Northumberland-1752.html

Alnwick CastleOctober 1988, Alnwick Castle, Northumberland, the view from the Picnic Tower. Copyright: Steffie ShieldsThen Dr Shrimpton invited me up to the Picnic Tower to survey the castle setting and allowed me to take photographs of an amazing 180 degree panorama: the mirror-like River Aln winding below the ramparts in a pronounced Hogarth curve towards the coast, snaking through the castle meadows punctuated with odd trees and groves, the rolling hills topped with belts and clumps of beech, leading my eye effortlessly from three foreground-oaks towards the far horizon. Could all this be the result of one man's vision?

That question was the beginning of a long, investigative journey, or ‘a fairy circle’, as Jemima, Marchioness de Grey put it, having accompanied the great man on a walk in the park at Wimpole in Cambridgeshire.

“Break of Break off, we tread Enchanted Ground” is almost literally true with me at present. Mr Brown has been leading me such a Fairy Circle
 and his magic Wand has raised such landscapes to the Eye,
not Visionary for they were all there,
but his Touch has brought them out with the same Effect as a Painter’s Pencil upon Canvass –
1

The history of places has always intrigued me since the age of nine or ten, stemming from a school project highlighting the landmarks of my village home territory.  Here was a grown-up project to enjoy.  I hoped that Capability would teach me the art of landscape photography! The fact that age, disease and storm had decimated much of his work had concentrated my mind and ‘got me on my bike’.

I have never undertaken university courses in garden history.  Rather slowly, over the years, my confidence and knowledge grew, as if by osmosis, simply by looking, comparing, reading and asking many questions. Rather different than collecting stamps or Clarice Cliffe china, my tally of Brown site visits is just short of 200 to date, with Dorothy Stroud's seminal biography ‘Capability Brown’ 2 as my much-thumbed guidebook.

Audley EndAudley End, Essex. Brown transformed a flooding River Cam into a calm, mirror lake. His sham bridge flanked by tall oriental planes screens his dam. Copyright: Steffie ShieldsThe more I looked for remnant highlights of his works, the more I read, the more I was hooked!  I started rifling through archives for primary evidence, accounts, surveys and plans, letters and journals to get to know the man behind the designs and exactly what motivated him.   Who were his collaborators?  That age-old question...how exactly did he do it?

My daughter gave me Gerald Wilkinson’s ‘A History of Britain’s Trees’ 3 an invaluable tool for recognising possible Brown trees.  Who would have thought I would be reading engineering articles and attending conferences about flood prevention and dam-making.  I joined the Garden History Society and my local county gardens trust and began attending occasional study days, lectures and symposia, also discovering earlier designers such as Stephen Switzer and what gardens looked like in Brown’s youth.  My enthusiasm was boosted by finding like-minded friends who gave me helpful advice and generously pooled their own research snippets with me.

If you are interested to follow suit, information here on Parks & Gardens UK will help start your hunt. You will discover many 'Capability' Brown landscapes are open to the public and their exact locations.  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? Then go and explore one or two... or more! Over twenty-five years later, I still enjoy ‘walking the ground’.  

Wimpole ParkWimpole Park, Cambridgeshire, Brown planted enclosing tree belts, and framed views to his chain of lakes, his Chinese Bridge and to his ‘ruined’ Gothic Tower. Copyright: Steffie Shields I look forward to joining in the exciting national CB300 Tercentenary Festival in 2016, (www.capabilitybrown.org.uk) on the near horizon.   As William Shakespeare put it, “All the world’s a stage”4. There is much theatre to interpret. 'Capability' Brown, a world-class player in terms of improvement to eighteenth century quality of life, left a cultural legacy of parkland landscape settings that continue to inspire artists and photographers, gardeners and landscape architects, and that, beside forestry and agriculture. His amphitheatres of space continue to host the nation’s uplifting activities, concerts, sport, game fairs, television and films – something for everyone – in terms of visual delight and tranquillity, well-being and solace.

Go looking for Mr Brown before his waters, his architecture and the last vestiges of his designs and planting disappears... before it’s too late. Why do we value something more when we are about to lose it? Teach yourself to read the story of his landscapes and then tell your children and grandchildren all about his fairy circles.


Sources

1. Beds Archive Office. 30/9a/9/124 Lucas papers, 19 Sept 1769. Probably a reference to John Bunyan, Pilgrim’s Progress (published 1678) begun while imprisoned in Bedford jail. ‘The Enchanted Ground’ is an area, through which the King's Highway passes, that has air that makes pilgrims want to stop to sleep. If one goes to sleep here, one never wakes up.

2. Dorothy Stroud, “CAPABILITY” BROWN (Faber & Faber, 1975, Revised Ed.1984)

3. Gerald Wilkinson ‘A History of  Britain’s Trees’  (Hutchinson & Co Ltd, 1981)

4. William Shakespeare’s play ‘As You Like It’ c1600, first published 1623.

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