The Repton Gazette and Brown Advisor

300 Frequently Asked Questions about Capability Brown, and a further 200 about Humphry Repton

92: Isn’t Beech the tree most associated with Brown?

Monsieur B of Orléans has been in touch again, this time with a question about Copper Beech – did Capability Brown use it, and if so in what circumstances?

Let us praise the beech, a tree favoured for windy sites, such as the sides of hills, and for waste ground, and planted for its value ‘to the Upholsterers and Turners’, particularly in the Chilterns.

Today we regard it as too beautiful a tree to be compared with any other of our natives. Its habit is neater and tidier; the mast and leaf crunch underfoot like gravel, and keep the paths a little dryer in Autumn; and it suppresses the understorey, so that woods of Beech are easy to walk through. Its lower branches and leaves will readily droop to the ground, and this makes it our best native for the exploitation of the form of the ground as Thomas Whately described at Caversham, ‘a fine knole, from which descend two or three groupes of large trees, feathering down to the bottom, and by the pendency of their branches favouring the declivity.’ The rounded form of the knoll is emphasised by the beech planting, to make them more rounded, higher, less natural and more dramatic. Its foliage is as light as a lime’s, yet with a more cheerful form. Where it has been planted in hangers, on the sides of hills, as Hale advised, it does not require shredding or brashing, to give a straight bole; its clean columnar trunks are set off in whole ranks in winter. It is still more effective in the Autumn, when the trees first let fall their leaves, fire-brown at their feet, and give the slopes a gradient of colour from green, in the valley, to a vivid brown at the feet of the trees at the top, like the dim glow of lamps on the green baise of a croupier’s table; and on top of that it feeds pigs.

If thorn is one of the natives that one might least think of as characteristic of the planting of Capability Brown, Beech is one of those that is most regularly associated with his style. Brown used hazel with it – the native nut-tree made a natural nurse  and by combining with brushwood and coppice, he achieved woods of great intricacy, cut through by valleys and declivities. We think of the Golden Valley at Ashridge, of Heaven’s Gate at Longleat, or of King’s Wood at Trentham and to those plantations I would add the Hertingfordbury valley at Cole Green – all of them associated with important approaches or drives, and all of them encouraging the thought that Brown had recognised the effect of the tree, whether derived from its beauty or its associations,

In fact however he used it much less than oak, and Thomas Hale was right to wonder why ‘‘tis not more cultivated in general throughout the Kingdom’. I know only a few occasions – Sledmere, obviously, the clumps at Blenheim – where it was widely used in the open.

The reason could have been a deep-seated prejudice against Beech, William Gilpin wrote it off as soft, spungy … sappy, and alluring to the worm. … In point of picturesque beauty I am not inclined to rank the beech much higher, than in point of utility. … In full leaf … it has the appearance of an overgrown bush’, it was useless and unpicturesque.

Whence comes this prejudice? I cannot help but wonder whether in Brown’s day, far from evoking through the majesty of the clean stems something of the spare serenity that Wyatt introduced to the cathedral, they were seen with pigs scuttling around them, as a rough contrast to the house beyond? Could it be that notwithstanding its beauty, beech was regarded primarily as a food tree, and beech mast was primarily food for pigs, and a lower class of tree, while elm, sweet chestnut and lime, the trees most commonly planted in avenues, could be eaten by horses, cattle and deer, thus attracting them into the avenue and animating it?

Another thought occurs to me. Might the prejudice not spring from something lost in translation two millennia ago? Φηγος, meaning oak in ancient Greek, was taken into Latin as ‘fagus’, meaning ‘beech’ (it remains botanical Latin for beech). If one had planted a park with beech, might one not have been held to ridicule for planting an Arcadian landscape with the wrong tree.

One further point with respect to Brown’s use of beech, my good friend the forester, Mr P of Warminster has pointed out that at Longleat, Moccas and Trentham, around half the trees in the plantations were headed at around two metres, presumably the headed were an insurance policy for the unheaded and vice versa – one of the two was likely to survive.

Ah, but Monsieur B was asking about copper beech. It was introduced from Germany in 1760 and its use in the vicinity of houses dates to Repton who seems likely to have admired it as the only deciduous tree to have a bushy-top and dark leaves. While he never wrote about copper beeches, they do come up again and again in his landscapes, usually by the house. I don’t have any record that Brown singled it out for any particular purpose.

 

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7 Comments

  1. Were the beech “clumps” on Berkhamstead common the work of Brown?

    The four clumps are shown on the Estate map of 1762, and are also on today’s Ordnance maps.
    Brown was commissioned to work at Ashridge from 1758, and although the common was not part of the Estate , the Bridgewaters had commoners’ rights and leased it from the Duchy of Cornwall after 1761.
    The remnants of the clumps can still be seen today – they are substantial in extent and not mere “pimples in the landscape” – a phrase used by Brown in his early learning.
    Were they in the picaresque style – clumps of trees rising from a sea of bracken and gorse (furze), or did they predate his arrival? Can we be safe in assuming that they are attributable to Brown?
    Regards
    John Trimmer

    • Dear Mr Trimmer, At Bampton market last week I had the good fortune to find Mr W the Morris dancer. He is a laconic fellow, devoting much of his time to polishing his bells and buckles, and generally quiet save for the tinkling of his legs as he and his friends skip to the fiddler. However as he ended his jig he told me that the park at Stowe is boring, and therefore he had dismissed it as an early work of the great master, Capability Brown.
      By boring I think he meant that it is a scattering of buildings and clumps in a large piece of grass and very much less organised that the gardens of Stowe. Your question is thus singularly well-timed. Might I advise you, as I advised my good friend Mr W, to think first of the purpose of the design. Planting on commons is not, if you’ll forgive me, uncommon, but clumps widely spaced about grassland suggest a number of functions: hare coursing, horse-racing, sheep walk, hay-making and fox-hunting. Hay-making and sheep walk will both have been difficult to manage on common land, however horse-racing, in which the trees provide obstacles or markers, like the clump on Burghley’s race-course, might have taken place. Still more likely might be hare-coursing, a subject to which I advert in post 73 and which I see I must publish immediately. It is less likely that fox-hunting coverts would have been planted on the common, and the common itself is unlikely to have been wild, unless there were too few commoners to manage it.

      • Hello and thanks for your comments.
        The fenced beech/pine clumps would appear to be for ornamental reasons only.
        Berkhamstead common was a treeless open space in 1758, but no doubt “capable” of improvement in the eyes of Brown. Without the ability to create his trademark water feature because of a lack of surface water, he may well have turned his attention to the sea of gorse, heather and bracken across the valley. Clumps of trees rising above a savannah of ground cover would be akin to a wild parkland setting. This does however fly in the face of the suggestion in question 118 “How smooth”, that Brown’s landscapes were altogether smooth, and had no wildness in them.
        The common supported much livestock at the time, along with the Bridgewater’s flock of three hundred sheep. There was indeed a horse-course on the Estate, but this was on Ivinghoe common some three miles distant.
        The four clumps some seventy yards in diameter were set at regular intervals on high ground all at one hundred and sixty five metres – each one able to be viewed from the Medieval home. This gave the appearance of a continuous line of trees stretching to the horizon, and was probably the purpose of the design. This work may well have precipitated the leasing of the common by the Bridgewaters in 1761, allowing it to be shown on the Estate map of 1762!
        Regards
        John T

  2. Dear Mr Trimmer, these clumps of yours are interesting. Are they all exactly the same size? I wonder if you are familiar with the large clumps of Kirtlington, Rise and Sledmere? Would you be good enough to let us see a scaled plan of them?

    • Thanks for that.
      The four clumps are roughly about the same size with a diameter of some seventy yards.
      The 1877 Ordnance Survey map shows some pine interspersed with the beech, and we have remaining a veteran beech in the fourth and last clump around two hundred and fifty years of age!
      I am not familiar with any similar clumps in a Brown landscape hence the query.
      This is the link to the 1877 map showing the first three clumps. http://maps.nls.uk/view/102343319
      The National Trust at Ashridge will be featuring Brown’s work in an exhibition in 2016 and it would be wonderful if these clumps could be attributed to him.
      Regards
      John T

  3. Victoria truman

    IS THERE A REFERENCE LINKING WEEPING BIRCH TO CAPABILITY BROWN?
    OR ANY OTHER WEEPING TREES OTHER THAN WEEPING WILLOW.

    • The Brown Advisor

      Dear Ms Truman, Capability Brown’s acquaintance Horace Walpole was said by his gardener to favour plants of weeping habit that hang down ‘somewhat poetical’, and Brown’s drawings do show weeping willows, so there was an awareness of the effect. Since Betula pendula is native, we can be sure that Brown used it too. Occasionally weeping forms of beech would also arise, but you should be aware that the degree of weep was very much less than is available today, after two centuries or more of breeding and selection. Weeping beech was available as a variety of beech by the end of the 18th century – you may know the wonderful specimen planted by J. C. Loudon on the dam at Stradsett – but I have never noticed such varieties planted as specimens in the pleasure grounds of Brown. It can be very difficult to persuade nurserymen and women that one is only looking for a certain degree of weep, rather than an arboreal collapse. – The same also holds for ‘Rivers Purple’, which is much more strongly coloured than anything available in Repton’s day – again the pleasure ground at Stradsett has a very fine example from the early 19th century.

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