The Advisor has received a number of enquiries about Capability Brown’s use of exotics. Mrs D. has written from Hampshire to ask if Brown bought the Black Locust or Robinia pseudoacacia. Well. Cobbett thought it would be the future of England’s forests.
He was mistaken, it does not have the strength. However it does crop up on many of Brown’s landscapes and where it survives it seems invariably to have been grown as a shrub, on a short coppicing rotation, to bring the fragrant flowers to nose level.
Similarly Mrs M has written from Cheshire about an odd oak that is growing at Doddington Hall. She asks if it could be Brown’s, and I don’t see why not – there are large exotic oaks at several of Brown’s landscapes: the Turkey oak around the folly at Wimpole, the Downy oak at Ickworth, and the various hybrids of Fulham and Luccombe oak and the Chestnut-leaved oak at Woodchester. It may be that there was a particular interest in experimenting with oak for its patriotic association and use in ship-building. Equally it may be that oak is the only exotic to have survived.
A first port of call for anyone wishing to explore Brown’s use of exotics might be Loudon’s Arboretum et fruticetum Britannicum, which records where the largest recorded trees in each species were then growing. Sometimes, as with Willow-leaved oak, there is a good correlation with Brown’s landscapes. It may be that in these cases Brown took an interest in using exotics. Equally it might be the case that land-owners who had enough money to employ Brown might also want to satisfy a penchant for the exotic.
As for Brown himself, maybe he wasn’t the devotee of the exotic that he might have been. There is a debate to be had and on cue here comes the Bar, who slaps down a heap of papers on our table, says ‘facts? facts? you want facts? Here are the facts?’, then exits the Tatler’s Waste-bin with a swirl of his black cape. What follows is the best I can do by way of summary.
Exotics (defined by Evelyn as ‘plants such as are sent from beyond the seas’) had long been imported into England. William Harrison had remarked on ‘how many strange herbs, plants, and annual fruits are daily brought unto us from the Indies, Americans, Taprobane [Ceylon], Canary Isles, and all parts of the world’. We think nothing of using them in gardens today and we tend to think it has always been so. Hampton Court under William and Mary was very much a collection of ‘all foreign Plants’; the great green house at Wanstead was celebrated as a fortress offering ‘A safe Protection for her nearest Care, Her foreign Favourites (no British Race)’; Sir John Dalrymple regarded exotics as having their place in particular kinds of country; much as he loved wild flowers, the Rev. William Gilpin did not want to see ‘the hand of art laying them out in knots’. In Nerina’s garden, according to William Mason ‘each flow’r that bears transplanting change/ Or blooms indigenous, adorn’d the scene’; and John Graefer’s catalogue appears to have shown an indifference to the provenance of plants used in gardens, while Thomas Gisborne, though he gave an account of naturally arising communities of plants, still took the Cluniac view that the artificially landscaped and planted park could itself be expressive of a benign divinity. In short the century will have known, on the highest possible authority, and would seem to have adopted as its watchword, that Eden contained ‘every tree that is pleasant to the sight’.
Notwithstanding Genesis however there is clear evidence for a similarly profound disposition (New Testament perhaps, given Jesus’ preference for the lilies of the field over Solomon in his glory) to prefer the English Oak to the ‘weeping Amber’, as Pope put it, or Francis Mundy, a generation later, in describing ‘the Genius of the place. – / His large limbs press a primrose bed,/A moss-grown root sustains his head’, leading the poet to ask ‘Ye sage Professors of design,/ Whom system’s stubborn rules confine, /Can science her one blemish show?/ Or one deficient grace bestow?’. The genius of the place preferred natives, and their use had to be closer to a divinely created beauty.
This tradition already had a great depth in our literature. Geoffrey Chaucer extolled the spring-time beauty of the daisy ‘of alle the floures in the mede’ in The Legend of Good Women. Shakespeare’s best gardener, Perdita, most admired wild daffodils, violets and primroses, and refused to have florist’s flowers in her garden, notwithstanding Polixenes’ argument that they too were natural (Winter’s Tale Act IV). The principle is present in Virgil, from whom the poets of Caroline and Stuart Britain borrowed it. For Drayton, the Thames was not to be dressed with effeminate garden flowers, ‘but onely such as sprong /From the replenisht Meads, and fruitfull Pastures neere’;so too Alexander Ross: `she scornes the Courtiers life …/ To see the medowes spring, the Rivers glide,/ Doe more delight her than their painted pride…’
The country houses of the day showed the same careful distinction, so Saxham in Thomas Carew’s poem was: ‘… full of native sweets, that blesse/ Thy roofe with inward happinesse’; and at Wrest Park, the flowers, ‘diffuse/ Such native Aromatiques, as we use/ No forraigne Gums, nor essence fetcht from farre,/ No Volatile spirits, nor compounds that are/ Adulterate;/ … blesse/ This Mansion with an usefull comelinesse,/ Devoide of Art, for here the Architect/ Did not with curious skill a Pile erect/ Of carved Marble, Touch, or Porpherie…’.
But the Bar also had in mind Blake’s ‘heaven in a wild flower’; and some thought of Cowper, whose attitude to Nature can be discerned from his poem ‘Hope’, listing ‘Banks clothed with flowers’ among ‘Ten thousand charms, that only fools despise’. Wordsworth’s position is clear from ‘I wandered lonely as a cloud’ (composed 1804) and ‘To me the meanest flower that blows can give/ Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears,’ (1807). However the latter’s Guide through the District of the Lakes is explicit: ‘What shall we say to whole acres of artificial shrubbery, and exotic trees among rocks and dashing torrents, with their own wild wood in sight – where we have the whole contents of the nurseryman’s catalogue jumbled together – colour at war with colour, and form with form? – among the most peaceful subjects of nature’s kingdom, everywhere discord, distraction and bewilderment?’ The extraordinary power that Wordsworth sensed in the ‘vegetable garb’ of Nature is expressed in his appreciation of Lakeland cottages ‘Hence buildings, which in their very form call to mind the processes of Nature, do thus, clothed in part with a vegetable garb, appear to be received into the bosom of the living principle of things, as it acts and exists among the woods and fields; and by their colour and their shape, affectingly direct the thoughts to that tranquil course of Nature and simplicity, along which the humble-minded inhabitants have, through so many generations, been led.’ Coleridge of course managed both to express the idea more wittily and to see where it might end. In defending his untended garden at Nether Stowey to John Thelwall in 1797, he adopted Rousseau’s position: ‘The weeds, you see have taken the liberty to grow, and I thought it unfair in me to prejudice the soil towards roses and strawberries’.
George Stubbs presumably availed himself of the native tradition for his ‘Lady reading in a wooded park’ (1768-70), where his model is embowered with primroses and Queen Anne’s Lace. At an earlier date, Addison admired flowers from ‘under a common Hedge, in a Field, or a Meadow, as some of the greatest Beauties of the Place [his house] … I love to see every thing in its perfection; and am more pleased to survey my rows of colworts and cabbages, with a thousand nameless pot-herbs, springing up in their full fragrancy and verdure, than to see the tender plants of foreign countries kept alive by artificial heats, or withering in an air and soil that are not adapted to them’ though much preferring the former in coppices; and Switzer, following the Spectator, simply thought wild flowers and exotics equally beautiful: ‘hedgerows being mix’d with Primroses, Violets, and such natural, sweet and pleasant Flowers … afford as much Pleasure as … the most elaborate fine Garden’. … ‘Instead of those Suffrutices or exotic Shrubs … [sow] good Oak, and other natural Furniture of our Coppices’. This compares with an opinion with which Philip Southcote may have agreed, as Joseph Spence (himself a user of wild flowers) speculated: ‘Whence did Mr Southcote take his idea of a Ferme Ornée – Fields, going from Rome to Venice.’ The point was made superbly, if severely, by Whately in his account of Wooburn, ‘If the parterre has been rifled for the embellishment of the fields, the country had on the other hand been searched for plants new in a garden; and the shrubs and flowers which used to be deemed peculiar to one, have been liberally transferred to the other…’
Joseph Warton attacked Stowe in 1744 because ‘all her attic fanes’ (i.e. Grecian temples) could not ‘such raptures raise/ As the thrush haunted copse,’ (i.e. the native woodlands growing around them), and Richard Graves’ Hortensius regarded ‘forest-trees, or hazel copses and hawthorn bushes, without “primroses or periwinkles,” or any curious exotics’ as appropriate to the pragmatic ‘modern taste’. His planting was to be proof against ‘pigs or sheep, or other tasteless animals’.
Lord Temple himself, after spending more than seven hours on the 5th June 1770 touring the garden before a Royal visit, recorded only ‘Liburnums & Horse chesnuts’ among flowering trees – and even they were ‘not yet in their full Beauty’; William Shenstone, who had a marked preference for natives (unlike Philip Southcote), also praised Lord Temple for not using exotics (‘Th’ exotic folly knows its native clime;/ An awkward stranger, if we waft it o’er;/ Why then these toils, this costly waste of time,/ To spread soft poison on our happy shore?’ ) and, surely recognising the political motive in Temple’s use of natives, associated liberty, England, nature and simplicity with ‘flow’ry fields.’
In similar vein, Lady Luxborough wrote to Shenstone on 23rd March 1748-9 that ‘The spring shews at least the beauties of childhood; for there are plenty of snowdrops, primroses, polyanthuses, and even violets, which promise more sweets…’. With a similar evocation of childhood innocence, in ‘The Vision’, Shenstone’s ‘sprightly female pilgrims [the passions] … during their youth [made] excursions … of no greater extent than to crop a primrose, or a daisy, that grew on the way-side.’ Even in the shrubbery lady proprietors were encouraged by Lady Montagu and Sarah Scott to confine themselves to ‘sweet and pleasing’ rather than rare things, being ‘free from that littleness of mind, which makes people value a thing the more for its being possessed by no one but themselves’, and John Scott (no relative so far as I know) thought wild flowers a joyful part of the easy life of the shepherd.
The great botanists Joseph Banks (1743-1820) and James E. Smith (1759-1828), enjoyed a high position in society, the latter being regularly invited to botanise at Hafod with Mariamne Johnes. John Lightfoot (1735-1788) was in similar demand at Bulstrode. Launching what was to become the 19th century’s filophilia, James Bolton wrote in 1785 that there was no ‘tribe of plants so singular and beautiful as the British proper Ferns must be allowed to be’. Such was ‘their own beautiful singularity’ that he recommended that they ‘might with great propriety be introduced into our botanic gardens’ and even into hot-houses, though they are plants usually associated with wasteland.
A similar regard for wild plants may be found in the 18th century wild flower gardens of Burton Constable (made 1763-69), where the plants were labelled ‘H’ if they came from Holderness, and of Bulstrode. William Gilpin criticised Lord Bute for importing exotics to Highcliffe after his moved his Botanic Garden there from Luton Hoo. His love of natives, ‘the heath, and broom, with their purple and yellow tints; the fox-glove with it’s pale-red pendent bells; the wide-spreading dock; and many of the thistle-tribe’ is evident in his writing. William Curtis took a commercial interest in natives when he took about an acre of Restoration Spring Garden in 1771 for the culture of British plants, and Mary Rose Blacker has also found evidence that the use of wild flowers in flower arrangements actually increased towards the end of the 18th century, re-emerging in the 1760’s, but clearly loved by Queen Mary, for the recreation of whose arrangements at Het Loo parts of the parkland there have today been put down to hay meadow. In 1790 Queen Charlotte acquired Frogmore and wrote that: ‘My chief plants are to be natives of England & all such foreign ones as will thrive in our soil’. Samuel Foote’s nabobs had committed two crimes, first they felled the ancient English avenues, and then dared to replace them with ‘dotted clumps’ of ‘trumpery [i.e. exotic] shrubs’.
Above all, the major contemporary authorities for Brownian theory were hostile to exotics. William Mason praised the ‘hardy class/ Indigenous … That veteran troop who will not for a blast/ Of nipping air, like cowards, quit the field’ and mocked ‘the Aliens’: ‘but Winter comes…/ …At the dread sight/ stand aghast…/ …they fade, they die’ and mocked the landowner (perhaps Sir Laurence Dundas at Aske) who planted them in Swaledale. R. L. Girardin regarded ‘foreign trees’ as ‘difficult and expensive to raise, and still more difficult to preserve’, and added that ‘they seldom accord well with the trees of the country … you cannot counteract the designs of nature with impunity’. Horace Walpole complained that ‘Half the cypresses have been bewitched and turned into brooms, and the laurestinus is perished everywhere. I am Goth enough to choose now and then to believe in prognostics, and I hope this destruction imports that though foreigners should take root here, they cannot last in this climate,’ and doubted whether the difficulty of growing exotics ‘in a clime so foreign to their nature did not convince our ancestors of their inutility in general’. Even Uvedale Price found common ground with these Brownians, describing ‘foreign trees… in the out-skirts of a wood’ as ‘much like a group of young Englishmen at an Italian conversazione.’ His friend, Richard Payne Knight too despised the ‘capricious planter’ who ‘By quaint variety to cause surprise;/ Collects of various trees a motley host,/ Natives of every clime and every coat;/ Which, placed in chequer’d squares, alternate grow,/ And forms and colours unconnected show’. Small wonder that the nurserymen who sold American plants had to defend their use. So Rutter and Carter acknowledged ‘the smiling beauty of a common ditch-bank, in the full spring, covered with its variety of weeds’ and promoted ‘the plants of North America’ because they ‘keep up that bloom of spring, which please in the hedge-rows for a fortnight’, they went on to propose that such flowers should be kept in a discrete part of the garden, hidden from the rest.
As striking as any text are Wordsworth’s home at Rydal Mount, and his design for the glade at Coleorton, where his restraint was markedly in contrast with Loudon’s elaboration. So in his letter to Lady Beaumont, of December 1806, he proposed that, ‘the path … should … be accompanied by wild-flowers,’ and the ‘unelaborate and simple’ glade was also for ‘wild-flowers to be scattered every where’, the ‘ small glade [the inner sanctum of the garden] … should be as monotonous in the colour of the trees as possible, the enclosure of evergreens, the sky above, the green grass floor, and the two mute Inhabitants [two goldfish], the only images it should present, unless here and there a solitary wild Flower.’ This is testimony to the remarkable rise to significance of wild flowers – and of grassland – through the 18th century, for in Wordsworth’s design they take the place occupied in the 17th by the finest new imports and cultivars. While Mr MacClary’s ‘variaty’ at Rousham was provided by mixing common shrubs, rather than by using exotics.
… The point is made I think that not everybody welcomed Americans, but let us leave the subject with William Marshall’s commentary. He was a Brownian and founded his criticism on his inherited sense of association: ‘If a taste for botany lead to a collection of native shrubs and flowers, a shrubery [sic] will be requisite; but, in this, every thing should be native. A gaudy exotic ought not to be admitted …[in the garden of an ornamental cottage]’. While he was prepared to admit them at a ‘principal residence’, he conceded time and again that those who spurned native plants spurned them simply because they were common.
The Bar’s claim that there was a lively debate about the place of American plants in the garden thus concludes and seems reasonably made.