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‘A Most Pleasing Serenity’: The Aesthetics of Lancelot Brown

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  1. ‘A Most Pleasing Serenity’: The Aesthetics of Lancelot Brown
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Written by Dr Laura C Mayer

Temple Newsome avenue c Rich Tea GeographThe Avenue, looking towards Temple Newsam House, one of the vistas planned by Capability Brown when he landscaped the park in the 1760s. Copyright Rich Tea and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.With the 2016 Capability Brown 300 Celebration fast approaching, the need to reflect on the master designer’s achievements in shaping the eighteenth century landscape has never been greater. Brown’s practical skills – those of an earth engineer, businessman and architect – were undeniably crucial to the success of the natural landscape style, yet it is his iconic vision of rural England that endures. Brown’s consultancy was associated with around 260 landscape parks, with hundreds more laid out concurrently in a similar style by his imitators. This approach evolved, in his own words, from ‘all the elegance and all the comforts that mankind wants in the Country’.1 The resultant park formula held the commercial monopoly on landscape design well into the nineteenth century. It included open expanses of turf, scattered with individual trees and tree clumps, surrounded by a perimeter belt, and ornamented with serpentine water and perhaps a smattering of garden buildings. Circuit drives wove in and out of the wooded shelter belt, as at Croome, in Worcestershire, providing visitors with a series of constantly changing scenes.

Brown’s vast landscape parks are defined by their planting, his preference being for indigenous trees, such as oak, elm and beech. This has been interpreted by some as a conscious rejection of foreign trees in an effort to create a specifically English – and definitively un-French – style of gardening.2 In truth he made frequent use of exotics, including the cedar of Lebanon and American plane, leading Jane Brown to christen the cedar Brown’s ‘signature tree’.3 He also planted conifers, not just as nurses in the plantation of hardwoods, but scattered across the turf as specimen trees in their own right, as at Kimberley, in Norfolk. The shorter life span of many exotic species has accentuated the indigenous ‘natural’ character of Brown’s planting, in the same way that Stourhead is famous now only for its elitist, classical views – the surviving stoic temples having long out-lived their flimsy Rococo counterparts.

Wimpole Hall 1807 c ancestryimages"Wimpole, Cambridgeshire" copper engraved print published in The Beauties of England and Wales, 1807. Copyright Brown is known for his systematic removal of formal gardens from the vicinity of the house, replacing them with rolling lawns separated from the grazed park by a sunken fence or ha-ha. This trait lead Humphry Repton to grumble ‘there is no part of Mr Brown’s system which I have had more difficulty in correcting than the absurd fashion of bringing cattle to the windows of a house’.4 Brown did not remove all formal planting from his schemes, however, as often these had not long reached maturity, leaving his clients reluctant to cut them down. Hence Wimpole Hall's South Avenue, planted in Cambridgeshire in 1720, was retained in full. On other occasions, parts of an avenue were saved for use within more informal planting schemes, as at Castle Ashby in Northamptonshire.

Brown’s plan for Wimpole dated Christmas 1767 is a textbook example of his mature style. Previously farmed land was laid smoothly to grass and bounded by a tree-lined ride.  Two seventeenth-century fishponds were naturalized into a chain of serpentine pools, and lastly gaps were cut through the old North Avenue to allow vistas through the trees. The end result was such that in 1769  Marchioness Jemima Grey wrote to Catherine Talbot:  ‘Mr. Brown has been leading me such a Fairy Circle, & 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’.5

This confident minimalist formula did not emerge fully formed at the start of his career, but rather evolved slowly, organically. Early landscapes such as Chillington in Staffordshire are rooted firmly in the Rococo traditions of the first part of the century; intimate and inward looking, with ornamental features and contrived views. Nevertheless, by the beginning of the nineteenth century, those aesthetic qualities which we so strongly associate with Brown were being recognized and praised by his contemporaries, as this description of Fisherwick in Staffordshire, written by a visitor in 1800 shows: ‘The still serenity of this beautiful lake heightened by the solumn umbrage of majestic trees on either side, terminated by a light elegant bridge, and backed by a thick wood, intirely excluding all other objects, [it] has the most sublime effect … The harmony of the whole diffuses a congenial calm over the imagination, and whilst we gaze with rapture, every passion subsides into a most pleasing serenity’.6

Fisherwick Hall 1786Watercolour showing the north and east fronts of the 1774 Fisherwick Hall, with the stable block to the right. Painted by John Spyers. Copyright Staffordshire County Buildings Picture Collection Unlike Repton or John Claudius Loudon, Brown left nothing to conclusively explain the theoretical, aesthetic or philosophical underpinnings of his designs. There is simply the over-quoted letter that he wrote to Rev Thomas Dyer in 1775, and Hannah Moore’s recollection of a conversation that she had with him in 1782. She tells us that Brown ‘compared his art to literary composition’, revealing ‘Now there I make a comma, and there, where a more decided turn is proper, I make a colon; at another part, where an interruption is desirable to break the view, a parenthesis; now a full stop, and then I begin another subject’.7 Brown streamlined the emerging informal garden, stripping an essentially Arcadian tradition down into its purest form, and adapting it to the needs of contemporary society.

How novel Brown’s style was and where it came from are subjects for another article. Certainly a number of the basic elements of the English landscape style were familiar features of parks pre-dating Brown, most notably in the layouts of Sanderson Miller and William Kent, but have been traced back even beyond the medieval deer park. Brown was undoubtedly the most successful eighteenth-century landscape designer in terms of artistic and financial terms, yet he did not work in isolation. A new generation of ‘natural’ landscapists, including Richard Woods, William Emes and even his patrons themselves were working on both new creations or, like many of Brown’s own commissions, the modification of existing deer parks.

It is fair to say that Brown’s overexposure in the garden history world has actually served to obscure those aspects of his career and legacy which remain under-researched. For example, Brown’s planting has received much attention, as it is so crucial to restoration work, whereas we still understand relatively little about how his aesthetic was developed later in the nineteenth century; how it stood up to the taste for wilder nature and gardens busy with embellishment. Ultimately, these gaps in our knowledge are why the Herculean efforts of Brown 300 to understand his legacy and increase enjoyment of not only his, but all designed landscapes, deserve to succeed.