I was caught in a grimace, with a root beer at the bar on my first step to becoming American, when Mr L of Brooklyn, English as it happens, approached me, and on discovering my occupation, asked whether the great landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted had been influenced by Capability Brown.
It wasn’t quite such an unexpected question as it may sound, for we were at the speak-easy on Park and 11th, and funnily enough, strolling that morning amidst the song-birds of Central Park, I had been asking myself a similar question, though perhaps in a more meditative form, to wit: if one were to marinade oneself in Brown’s style, seeking to absorb it in its entirety, how would the process first manifest itself? – one might conclude that in the case of Olmsted, it was one small step at a time.
Perhaps he had to teach his clients as much as himself, but Central Park, Manhattan (1858-1861) is a beginner’s piece. It tries so hard, its three-dimensional surround buffers the park from 58th street with great rock outcrops and hillocks, tunnels, bridges, bridges on tunnels, rides and drives and walks over them, plaiting the edge, weaving the perimeter. Its levelled green heart is itself full of diversions. It is great: the rocks, which attract idlers and tolerate no end of traffic, have turned out to be an unimaginable success – the rise from the street, up from under a bridge, rising up into what was sunlit pasture, now sports fields – but it is all Sir Joseph Paxton, showman, inducing magic by way of sleight of hand, rather than Capability Brown, artist.
Compare Central with Olmsted’s Prospect Park (1865-1873), that sits in Brooklyn like a gift so wonderful that the good citizens have never dared to change it. The smoothed grass of the Long Meadow, the lawns, the ease of it, the rolling folds of the ground, the trees that lightly scarf the park – Prospect is a considerable step from Central towards a true understanding of Brownian design, undulating yet unseen, unforced yet formed.
Then comes Boston (1875-1892), built around the idea of a long parkway, running through the city to Franklin, whose only buildings were to be small thatched shelters with ‘the general aspect of the simplest style of English rural cottages’, providing a separate narrative for the city alongside that of the grids of its streets – what is there that could not be found in the ridings of Wallington, Belvoir Castle, or Petworth?
So I put it to Mr L that the influence is undoubtedly there, but it may have taken Olmsted himself a lifetime to realise it.