Following my recommendation of Mason’s poem The English Garden, and Thomas Whately’s Observations as two worthwhile and contemporary critics of the art of Capability Brown, I have been visited by a torrent of consternation – or such it would have seemed, had it not been put so drily.
Dr S of Surrey writes to say that he had never seen anything of Brown in Whately and that he regards Brown as a snake, senselessly selected for stardom. Professor W of Nottinghamshire adds his fuel to the fire when he quotes to me the comment of Brown’s greatest critic, Uvedale Price: ‘Mr Mason’s poem on modern gardening, is as real an attack on Mr Brown’s system, as what I have written’, and follows it home with a piece from a letter of William Gilpin to Mason the poet, in which he reports the confession of the leading picturesque landscaper Thomas Johnes that his ‘walks & lawns, were laid out by Mr Mason; whose English garden he took in his hand; & wanted no other direction.’
Let me cap those with a mention of the dressed and undressed landscapes drawn by Thomas Hearne for another of the picturesque critics, Richard Payne Knight. Tom Wall has pointed out to me that the ‘dressed’ landscape is in fact bare and a parody of Brownian, and the ‘undressed’ is rougher in texture and clothed with plants.
I put it to these gentlemen, Dr S and Professor W, that all picturesque thought is expressed through paradox, or as we like to say in what will inevitably become the Trump age, ‘post-truth’. Price and Knight had learned that by saying something that was utterly unexpected they could confound the opposition, and their use of the lie direct was so novel that even today it has hardly been challenged. The last word here should go to Catherine Morland who as early as 1798 discovered of taste, with regard to the picturesque, that ‘the little which she could understand … appeared to contradict the very few notions she had entertained on the matter before.’
In short if a picturesquer tells you that Mason’s poem was an attack on Brown, you may be sure that that is exactly what it was not.