Arts & Culture Exhibitions History

What your country can do for you

  • July 4, 2022
  • 3 min read
What your country can do for you

by Sophie Pretorius

Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown, the famous historical name, in what we now call landscape gardening, and certainly the one on everyone’s lips during the Chelsea Flower Show, was a determined and prolific earthmover. Some examples of his work may be seen at Hampton Court Palace, where he lived from 1764-1783, Blenheim Palace in Oxfordshire, Warwick Castle in Warwickshire and some surviving traces at Kew. His much-mimicked style can be summarised thus: a great house, at the centre, slightly raised, from it sloping areas of grass, gently descend, fringed by artificial woodland, and strategically placed smaller clumps of trees, which hide the evidence of work occurring on the land. Brown’s creations nearly always contain a manmade lake – serpentine, and winding – straddled by an Italianate bridge. Through his lake designs, Brown intended to give the illusion of a large placid river. His scenes are Arcadian feats of engineering in the service of sprezzatura, that is, feigned understatement. The recent passing of the tercentenary of his birth brought to public debate discussions about the politics of his oeuvre, with camps making exact opposite points, both working off the very little information about his working practices, which remains, and mythologises, Brown to heady proportions. 

The first camp calls him a fascistic world builder, as well as a creator and perpetuator of snobbery and empire, whose artifice was all the more deplorable because it attempted to conceal itself. No one seemingly likes to speak about the very wealthy and what they do with their gardens, without mentioning how unfair it is, that you and I, might not have such wealth, or such a big garden: lest we fail to blame another historic individual with the existence of inequality. In the other camp, Brown’s supporters credit him with some kind of Duchampian eye for the readymade; readymade plucked from the soil, sun and water. In this model, Brown’s genius is cast as unbelievably gentle, sensitive and knowing curation. Those on this side of the debate, contrast his work to that of contemporary French and Italian gardening traditions, with their contrived and symmetrical topiary and parterres, and exalt his ability to work with the inherent ‘capabilities’ of the land he was given charge of. To this evangelical crowd, Brown is a great under-sung hero, not only of aesthetics, but of national identity, and of the beginnings of conservation. The boring truth, as it always is, lies somewhere in the middle. 

Perhaps crediting Brown with the pre-invention of post-modernism is laying it on a little thick. However, expecting this 18th century plucky social-climber, equipped with a brave new set of industrial earthmoving machines in an underpopulated England, to invent rewilding and socialism, all the while, achieving social parity through a mixture of notions of the social roles of public green space, and of gardening that did not yet exist, is to? Brown should not be expected to hold so many anachronistic beliefs, be them with regard conservationism and public/private property, or notions of aesthetics, which post-date the industrial age, and the birth of relative truth. It is all a little much, even for so capable a man.

Image: Blenheim Palace Distant View from the North

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Sophie Pretorius

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