I have just received, for my comments, a piece so vacuous, so cheerfully empty of meaning, that I believe it can only have been pasted together by a PR department. This piece claims, as if it were common knowledge, and without any evidence or attempt to explain what it means, that the quintessential gardener, Capability Brown, made landscapes that were natural.
The claim is unhelpful nonsense of course, but I’d like to think that it illuminates a bigger issue. This is that for 200 years, from 1794 to 1994 we saw Brown entirely through the eyes of his critics.
Perhaps it is worth spelling out once again the essential argument about nature. Set aside the formal designs that Brown retained from earlier layouts (Chilham Castle and Hampton Court for example), and think of the obviously artificial nature of so many of Brown’s clumps, ‘the deformity of those fine figures, the oval and the circle, when applied to plantation’ which William Sawrey Gilpin so criticised at Burghley and Normanton.
Then turn to the bigger issue that I mentioned: it is that we have a kind of lens, maybe a suit of armour would be a better image, or a pair of blinkers. At any rate there is a prejudice that sits between what we see and what we interpret as Brownian. So that we see the house on the hill, the grass running down to the lake, the clumps of trees and the surrounding belt as Brown. We reject anything else as anomalous, as not Brown, so if some part of the landscape looks unnatural, it can’t be his work.
Let me tell you what makes Brown natural for me, go to Croome, head out north of the house, across the pleasure ground and over the lane beyond. Then climb North Field where Brown’s circular clumps have been replanted.
It’s a funny thing about the contemporary maps of his work at Croome, but they show these clumps running along beside the ride there. They show them as regular (and thoroughly unnatural) circles, but they are obviously not set out at regular intervals. The great Hal Moggridge worked out how this had happened: the field that they were planted in is combed with ridge and furrow, and it turns out that the clumps were set out eleven lands apart (a land is a ridge plus a furrow), but the lands are of varying widths. So the instruction that Brown gave was to plant clumps eleven lands apart. He wasn’t hugely concerned about regularity. The effect is not ‘natural’ (qua imitating nature), but his was a ‘natural’ decision, easy to set out and work to, and relaxed about the grain of the landscape. There was no dogma, instead he used what lay to hand. That’s what makes Brown natural, natural like Shakespeare in fact.