Lady O, over-wintering at Menton, has written to ask what Capability Brown has given the modern world, beyond a few tired jokes.
Her garden designer, Russell Page, is known for having said nothing good about Brown, who ‘was encouraging his wealthy clients to tear out their splendid formal gardens and replace them with his facile compositions of grass, tree clumps and rather shapeless ponds and lakes’. As if this were not enough, he goes on ‘such vagaries, on a huge scale, may appear irrelevant to the problems of garden designers in the latter half of the twentieth century, but I can only think that the formlessness of so many modern gardens stems from this earlier decadence.’
So much for Brown, one might think, but take a look at Page’s gardens, or even just read what he wrote about them, and you will be surprised to find a style that is saturated with Brownian design and ideas: his use of green, of grass running up to the trees, of native plants – need I go on?
This is the curse of familiarity. Brown’s ideas have been so deeply absorbed into British culture that they are not recognised as his, and those who have learnt most from his work freely treat it with contempt. It’s a surprisingly difficult prejudice to root out.
Incidentally, Page also said that ‘with long practice one learns to draw a plan freehand and almost exactly to scale.’ I wonder if Brown could have shown him a few short cuts, if Page had troubled to inquire.
So, Lady O, there are a few things that the modern world can learn from Brown. Humility is one of them.