Miss E put the question directly at tea, and her question was capped by another: How can we ever understand the admired landscape gardener Capability Brown? – it will never be easy when his own obituary prophesied that ‘so closely did he copy nature that his works will be mistaken.’ How are we meant to work out what he did 300 years later, when they couldn’t work it out at the time? His contemporaries thought he was a magician, and it’s hardly surprising. We know he worked on over 260 places, but what he did there is usually anybody’s guess. Not only is his work generally impossible to pick out, but he wrote very little about it. There are hardly any accounts or plans, and the sheer number of his commissions is putting off in itself.
So, where do we start? Not with despair. Brown is the most important and influential landscape gardener in the western world, neck-and-neck with Louis XIV’s gardener André le Nôtre. Don’t forget that. And if we can’t find out what he did now, then who will? It’s not going to get any easier with the passage of time. Don’t forget that either. And as we approach the tercentenary of his birth in 2016, his work has never been so taken for granted and over-looked in England. That’s worth remembering as well – in fact that’s the challenge. That’s the best bit. There is everything to play for.