A review of a new book on – was he ever called Capability? – Lancelot Brown, reviewed by Gary Web who is Grounds Manager at Compton Verney, a Lancelot Brown landscape.
Anne Wareham editor
The Omnipotent Magician by Jane Brown reviewed by Gary Webb
Our great country is liberally sprinkled with gardens of all shapes, sizes and complexities, and despite fantastic new designs featured in the sparkly world of horticultural shows, I suspect the majority of open gardens we venture out to visit are historically formed, or based in part on early garden layouts. It surprises me therefore, that of the individuals who worked tirelessly in the past as garden designers, very few have become truly historic and left their name in the public arena for all to remember. One of those very few people whose name has permeated through time, and whose achievements are evident if we look even a little more closely, is our very own Lancelot Brown.
A man known for his genius and to some – his destruction, Brown designed, created and ‘improved’ gardens around some of England’s most treasured mansions: Blenheim, Audley End & Petworth to name a few. Whilst Brown travelled the length & breadth of the country, much of the time on horse-back in all weathers, Georgian garden visitors would be touring the carriage drives of his improved landscape gardens seeing mile after mile of his tree plantations, contoured lawns, perfectly positioned columns, bridges and ornaments. They would have seen armies of workers digging, barrowing and levelling, all earning their living on the back of Lancelot’s enterprise. On the whole, we know those garden visitors would have been inspired, for the style of Brown’s work spread to many more gardens throughout England and beyond.
It is for the above reasons that I took some precious time out to read a new title about Lancelot, and to try to understand a little more about the man, the workings of his life and maybe something about his approach to the works of art he created. In a biography by Jane Brown, a new attempt has been made to describe the life and, where known, the times of our dear Lancelot.
Two well known Brown books already stand as worthy sources of information, those being Dorothy Stroud’s 1975 ‘Capability Brown’ and Roger Turner’s 1999 edition of ‘Capability Brown and the eighteenth-century English landscape.’ Is ‘Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown – The Omnipotent Magician’ therefore a worthy addition to a landscape gardener’s book shelf?
Based on thorough research, Jane has toiled hard in an attempt to further illustrate Lancelot’s life, describing in detail so many fascinating things. From the outset, a sensible illustration of Lancelot’s England with a list describing notable locations Lancelot visited during his life clearly illustrates the incredible distances he travelled throughout his career. Being a practical man, he naturally clustered his trips to clients, but in his recognition of the need to cultivate ongoing business, it appears that a typical business-trip would see him dart about, often from county to county making these visits to clients.
There were plans to discuss, checks on progress needed, and labour to arrange, but it becomes clear there were more reasons for his lengthy travelling. Lancelot was very personable, and while he needed to relay his plans and desires to both labouring supervisors and sharp witted gentry alike, he clearly, as Jane describes, also used his personal visits to build relationships and win further introductions. These travels and this dedication had negative effects on his health, and involved many long weeks away from his children and wife Bridget, or Biddy as I came to know her during the book. Details of his trips are explained, including routes that have been worked out, and this gives the subject a real grounding.
The connections and family links between Lancelot’s wealthy clients appear to have been quite complex, very much on a ‘who-you-know’ basis, and references to these connections are prevalent throughout the biography. It is apparent that to clearly illustrate who Brown worked for, why, and especially the closeness of those relationships, it is essential that some examination of characters is required, although for me, I felt this frequently checked my progress through each chapter. If I possessed a broader knowledge of mid 18th Century aristocracy, I’m sure this would have allowed quicker recognition of their circles, and I’m also sure this would have helped my progress and enjoyment. The descriptions of the connections were most definitely essential to the biography.
A pleasing aspect to the book, due in no small way to the effort Jane put into preparing this life story, was her ability to see between the facts and figures that materialised in the historical evidence. Admittedly, I did struggle a little to decipher fact from educated infill, but once I engaged, so to speak, I was soon able to extract what I needed from the text. Jane did, I believe, draw from knowledge and an understanding of Lancelot, and made a worthy attempt to illustrate a real man, who had real issues to face, be they family triumphs or sorrows, critical acclaim or disapproval. If there was insinuation as to his or other peoples thinking, then I’d trust this to have been based on a more thorough understanding of the characters than I presently have.
Whilst I previously had an over simplified view of Lancelot’s approach as one of a successful ‘landscaper,’ I now understand that Lancelot clearly possessed good business acumen. Where I had not seriously considered the bearing his upbringing had on his life, I now can see much more clearly the huge steps he took to carve his niche in history. I had also not stopped to consider the friendships he developed with his colleagues and clients, and the difficult times he endured due to critical opponents. Through reading this biography, my belief in Brown as gardener and artist is recharged. I have acquired evidence for my previous thoughts that Lancelot Brown achieved so much more than appears on the surface of a typically ‘natural’ landscape garden.
The question as to whether Lancelot Brown did ever know of his ‘Capability’ nickname or not will rattle on for ever I suspect. The ‘Capability’ tag, if originally intended to mock, has become a very profitable addition to English mansion marketing and tourism as a whole. Brown, known for some years as the King’s Master Gardener, appears to have reached the very pinnacle of his profession from very humble origins. His commercial approach, mastery of water, earth contouring, planting and use of strong yet simple architecture has for me earned the title ‘The Omnipotent Magician’.
Jane Brown has produced a worthy source of reference material, written in an engaging way. It has revived my focus on a man whose gardens have steered my own career, and at Compton Verney, where I work as Grounds Manager, my engagement in the landscape is refreshed.
In addition to the book, an unconnected exhibition featuring some of Lancelot’s Midland’s commissions will be running from June to the 2nd October 2011 at Compton Verney, an art gallery in Warwickshire. Titled ‘Capability’ Brown & the Landscapes of Middle England, the exhibition brings the man and his genius to life by focusing on the famous landscapes within the region – including Croome, Charlecote Park and Compton Verney itself – and using the very latest research to examine how these parks were designed and constructed, how they responded to advances in shooting and transport, and how Brown addressed the enormous task of creating hills, vales and lakes in an age before tractors or JCBs. Information available: here
Gary Webb, Ground Manager, Compton Verney
Coming shortly: a review of the Sussex Prairies Garden by Kathy Buxton