Following my last (note 108), a bundle of post has bounced in from the provinces, and all my correspondents are hot and bothered about what a landscape designed by Capability Brown is and which ones will show him at his best in this, his tercentennial, year.
So? The Brown Advisor is to such situations as a Rennie is to an unsatisfactory digestion. A first step here might be to establish what is more or less known and then to carve our way from those outposts of truth towards the unknown conjecture, taking first one path and then another, and turning back from the cliffs and crocodiles.
Supposing we accept the list of sites attributed to Brown, diligently collected by so many good people around the country and published in the journal Garden History. The list has on it all the places where we think he advised, whether or not that advice was taken. The alchemy of research will edit each element of this cumbrous elephant to its slender essence – those sites where he gave advice and we know both what the advice was and that the advice was taken.
To my surprise however the substantial question for my correspondents is not straight-forwardly academic, but somewhat other, and essentially, to whom should we entrust the nice judgement of determining which Browns are worthwhile?
In the blue corner we have Mrs D who writes from Hampshire to propose that the County Gardens Trusts should make the decision for their own counties, and select those landscapes that they regard as sufficiently intact for the public to be able to recognise and enjoy his work – but it is not every county trust that has the understanding and enthusiasm that will make those decisions nationally consistent.
In the red corner we have Mrs W who would confine our admiration to landscapes on the Register of Historic Parks and Gardens at Historic England. But she faces the challenge that Brown’s contribution at a registered site may have been very minor – the landscape may have been listed for some other reason.
The Brown Advisor, so often more comfortable in the middle ground, finds on this occasion that no landscape attributed to Brown need be excluded. I would suggest to Mrs D that the parks of Southampton may be largely built over and destroyed, but the unusual number of them (Cadland, Cuffnells, Paultons, North and South Stoneham, Testwood) tells its own evocative story – there is much that we know about the design of these places and much we can learn from them about Brown’s development of the suburban villa landscape.
Think of Gilpin’s criticism of Paulton’s, where Brown started in 1759: ‘one of ye first works of Brown; & is, I think, as well worth seeing, as any improved part of ye forest … What chiefly displeased at Paultons were ye white bridges, adorned with elegant Chinese-work … they are peculiarly out of order, as they exalt into consequence a stream’. Turn now to his friend William Mason’s note: `I will wager that Welborn Ellis put them [the bridges] there himself and not Brown’ – and you will find in that fleeting moment, a precious and all too rare insight into the fine print of Brown’s style.