Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown: Green-Fingered Genius of the 18th Century
A previous blog post pondered on the different ways it is possible to improve ones creativity. The choice differed from one person to another, although a preference for exercise or walking would appear to be high on the list. For the pursuit of either activity, what better place can there be for the enviable out-of-doors ‘gym’ than the vast landscaped gardens surrounding any of the ‘Big Houses’ that still march across the countryside, many built during the 18th Century. The lovingly tended acres belonging to these ‘piles’ are seemingly as popular today as they were with contemporaries in the early days of inception – though possibly not for the same reason.
Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown’s career (and lucrative business) as a garden designer evolved from his initial experience of working in the grounds of Stowe in the mid 18th Century. Soon his name would become synonymous with the gardens of the period, and who today is still revered by many horticultural fanatics for his landscape designs. To achieve his vision, Brown deconstructed the formal gardens of the 17th Century.
He simplified their rigid structured formats through the use of rolling lawns, invariably bisected by a path, which ended at the walls of the house. It was an element causing much hard work for the labourers, as continuous scything was needed to maintain green perfection. Additionally, through sheer manual effort, artificial lakes were created, together with the illusion of diverted rivers, usually taking a serpentine form and seemingly flowing through the gardens themselves. Clumps of trees were planted in the mid distance to give added interest to the wide panoramas, as may be noted in the images of Blenheim Palace and Bowood House. Did all this reconstruction appear magically by the wave of a wand? Of course it didn’t! As was the case with the erection of the ‘big piles’ where the workforce was never acknowledged in paint, the masters now strove to hide the extent of the manual labour involved in the creation and upkeep of these ‘extensive landscaped playgrounds.’ They choose not to divulge either the monetary or physical cost required to achieve the ultimate rural perfection – an expensive and self-indulgent Arcadia. Brown gave the instructions and orders necessary for the transformation of the estates to unknown men (and sometimes women) whose names remain lost in the mists of time. Yet it was their muscle power that seemingly, with little effort, flattened and destroyed entire villages, diverted rivers, dug lakes, made hills. To ensure nothing would destroy the aesthetics of the vista, cattle were provided with underground passages so they could move unseen from one field to another. Once a design was instigated, Brown’s team of assistants and foremen oversaw the work whilst he moved on to his next commission. Obviously, with the increase in demand for rural excellence, gardening was becoming a lucrative business!
Brown’s successor, considered to be Humphry Repton, who is credited with coining the phrase ‘landscape gardener’ was even more akin to the ambitious modern businessman. Not only did he advertise his work through the use of Trade Cards but produced the ‘Red Books’ (due to the colouring of their binding) which contained an explanatory text and watercolors to help prospective clients visualize his designs.
Today, the work of these two gardeners is still recognized, and when this author visited The Glass House in New Canaan, designed by the architect Philip Johnson, the arrangement of the landscape incorporated in the gardens bore a startling resemblance to the work at Stowe. Proving surely genuine creativity, in whatsoever form, will always be appreciated and endure over many periods of time.
Feature Blog Post Photo from StockSnap