Mr J, a shepherd at Whitchurch, Hants., has asked whether ordinary people can understand the gardener, Capability Brown, convincing though he may be to the cognoscenti. Conventional wisdom has it that since Brown worked for an aristocratic elite, you won’t be able to understand his work unless you puff yourself up with titles and a pretension to court dress. I suspect that this may be something that Mr J would rather like to do – anyone who spends so much time with sheep is likely to become a fantasist. It’s something about their eyes. At any rate the fodder-for-the-elite argument both is and is not the case. Brown made his fortune not by adopting a de haut en bas approach to landscape, not by imposing fountains, avenues and parterres, but by shaping the simplest, most unwrought, most everyday materials, none of which would have been unfamiliar to the ordinary people of England. So far, so straight-forward.
But take his ‘aversion of showing a road’. I’ve already talked about Brown’s love of roads. It took Repton to point out the lengths to which Brown went to conceal their surfaces in his views. Repton never understood why he did this and went to equal lengths to make road surfaces visible in his own work. But let’s try and get the picture. Brown was taking the everyday: herds of cattle going to market, flocks of sheep herded by a sleepy shepherd-boy, like Gainsborough showed them, wagons and carts ambling this way and that and only too pleased to be on the better made roads that one might hope to find running across a landed estate, but then he was concealing the surface they were travelling on, so dissociating the process of travel from the means: bridges isolated on rivers, temples with no obvious means of approach, people and stock drifting across the scene like creatures in a dream. There are two magical process here, the first step is dissociation, whereby objects that have no apparent connection or association are presented in a single scene, and the second step, which follows directly from this disconnect, is transumption, so that in the mind’s eye one can look on the temple at Brocklesby, for example, and see oneself in ancient Rome, thus at a stroke transforming this everyday life into something like a fairyland, and Brown into a magician. It takes a goodly quant of leisure time to cultivate one’s imagination sufficiently to enjoy the enchantment – and leisure is exactly the thing that distinguishes the aristocratic elite from the masses, according to Aristotle anyway.