In Dublin, as it were, the other day I got to speaking with a well-belled man, let us call him Mr S, and actually it was over a table awash with Murphy’s stout in the Irish bar in Marbella. At any rate he asked me what I thought of the great Burke’s pronouncement, so often echoed by Humphry Repton:
‘A true artist should put a generous deceit on the spectators, and effect the noblest designs by easy methods. Designs that are vast only by their dimensions, are always the sign of a common and low imagination. No work of art can be great, but as it deceives; to be otherwise is the prerogative of nature only.’
Well, I have the highest regard for Edmund Burke, and for his political principle that you can’t explain or predict human decisions by any appeal to rationality, nor can you expect a society established on rational lines to work. It is after taking drink that these pronouncements take the sheen of an oracular truth.
When sober, and in the raging light of dawn, two further questions promote themselves: first could such an analysis be applied to that dealer in divots, the gardener Capability Brown? – that is, could he have set out to deceive, and second is it necessary for us to believe that he did if we are to regard him as an artist.
These are substantial questions. An obvious kind of deception might be that practised by Repton when he advocated using mirrors to extend the apparent length of a corridor or terrace. Is there anything in Brown’s work akin to that? Take his sham buildings for a start. Sham bridges are dams which sometimes terminate a lake (Scampston, Stowe) and sometimes conceal a change of water level . But it is we who choose to see them as bridges, they are perfectly sound pieces of architecture and engineering – they do not fail to do what it looks as though they will do, which is to provide safe passage over the water. The same goes for other sham buildings, take the White House at Chillington or the Dairy at Wynnstay. We choose to suppose that a building will look more or less the same from every side, because most of them do, but Brown’s shams are not pretend buildings, they are real enough. They may confound our expectations and they can trigger transumption (the sense that one is in two places at once), but any problem with perception is ours. I conclude that Brown did not set out to deceive. To be frank I don’t like the idea of Brown as a deceiver.
So then comes the next question: if he did not set out to deceive, are we justified in seeing him as an artist?
To answer this I suggest you put yourself in the position of a Martian, completely unfamiliar with our culture. Try to explain Brown to a Martian and you will find yourself explaining that what we call a landscape by Brown is a place where he worked, but most of the time we don’t actually know what he did there and, acre by acre, we cannot often distinguish anything he might have done from ‘natural’ countryside. That’s to say we can’t distinguish what is art from what is not. Nonetheless we reverence these places and visit them in our millions. Now your average Martian, and I’ve known a few, is going to stroke its green antennae and say ‘Wow! If that’s not art, it must be magic.’ I tend to think it’s both.