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.