By great good fortune I came across a Major J.S., recently demobbed, of Wolverhampton while he was feeding the ducks in West Park. ‘Hats off to his handling of the ground’ he said, ‘but I have often wondered what Capability Brown was trying to show with his maps.’
It’s a good point and follows on from notes 8 and 13 on Brown’s surveyor Spyers. The Major wandered off before I had formed a reply, but I was on the point of speculating that Brown might have selected his cartographic style as a means of expressing his preference for harmony in his parkland. The style is certainly minimal and unexciting; he shows so little of what he was actually going to spend money on; there is never an indication of earthworks, and only the outline of a lake, with no assessment of the engineering required for its construction, there are no contours – heaven knows how he ever managed to draw a lake without first taking levels; he does not show the drives; there is seldom any indication of land use – the plans could only have been any use to a foreman, who could guess pretty well what Brown was going to do anyway, or a land-owner desiring to keep the cost of such operations from their better half.
We might simply conclude with the French tourist de la Rochefoucauld, ‘that it was impossible to mark out an English garden on paper; the country in which it is to be made is all-important and the various views determine the groups of trees required to divide them.’ But the curious might ask whether his cartographic style might have developed out of a desire to reassure his clients that the proposed alterations would restore the timeless harmony of the place.
The phrase ‘swept away’ which is so associated with Brown, should be scotched wherever it occurs. Nonetheless it does carry with it a just sense of the peeling off of artificial interventions to restore the original and natural form. Above all else his work provided clients with an intelligible setting for a direct engagement with nature, something that squiggles of drives and heavy hachuring on a plan might not have conveyed so readily.
Well, as I say, the Major had already left, so I don’t know how this would have gone down with him.