Matt Ridley on the legacy of Capability Brown:
Next year marks the 300th birthday of Lancelot Brown at Kirkharle, in Northumberland, the man who saw “capability” in every landscape and indefatigably transformed England. In his 280 commissions, Capability Brown stamped his mark on some 120,000 acres, tearing out walls, canals, avenues, topiary and terraces to bring open parkland, with grassy tree-topped hills and glimpses of sinuous, serpentine lakes, right up to the ha-has of country houses.
Brown was not the first to design informal and semi-naturalistic landscapes: he followed Charles Bridgeman and William Kent. But he was by far the most prolific and influential. His is a type of landscape that is now imitated in parks all round the world, from Dubai to Sydney to Europe: it’s known as “jardin anglais” and was admired by Catherine the Great and Thomas Jefferson.
Frederick Law Olmsted laid out Central Park in New York in conscious emulation of Brown — as John Nash did with St James’s Park (Hyde Park is by Bridgeman). Golf courses nearly always pay unconscious homage to Brown. There is something deeply pleasing about a view of rolling grassland punctuated with clumps of low-branching trees and glimpses of distant water.
Mountains may have more majesty, forests more fear, deserts more danger, townscapes more detail, fields more fruitfulness, formal gardens more symmetry — but it is the informal English parkland of Capability Brown that you would choose for a picnic, or for a visit with a potential lover. It feels natural.
And yet of course it is wholly contrived. One of Tom Stoppard’s characters explains to another in his play Arcadia, as they contemplate the view of a park from a country house:
BERNARD: Lovely. The real England.
HANNAH: You can stop being silly now, Bernard. English landscape was invented by gardeners imitating foreign painters who were evoking classical authors. The whole thing was brought home in the luggage from the grand tour. Here, look — Capability Brown doing Claude, who was doing Virgil. Arcadia!
Hannah’s right. Claude Lorrain’s paintings of scenes from Virgil were all the rage in the 1730s. By the 1740s, when Brown started work at Stowe under William Kent, prints of 44 of Claude’s landscapes were on sale in London. The landscape at Stourhead (not by Brown), with its Grecian temples seen across lakes, is little more than a copy of Claude’s Aeneas at Delos. Kent’s genius, inspired by Lord Burlington and Alexander Pope, was to supply this craving for classical rural Arcadia.
The satirist Richard Cambridge joked that he wanted to die before Capability Brown so that he could see heaven before it was “improved”. In 2016 — the date of Brown’s birth is unknown; we have only the date of his baptism, August 30 — I shall raise a glass to a humbly born county boy, who mixed Northumberland with the Serengeti to produce Arcadia and gave us the archetypical English landscape.