Dr M seems unable to prevent himself from taking on the character and personality of that gardener, architect and man for all seasons, William Kent.
When he visits us at the Tatler’s Waste-Bin, he is sure to command the room with his air of quiet authority and his ‘ahem’s, yet there must be room I think in an open society for a party of anti-Kents.
Kent after all did achieve a place for landscape painting and the view at the centre of garden design. Recognition of this break-through had broken into loud applause within four years of his death. Here is Southcote: ‘Lord Burlington and Kent were the first introducers of the fine natural taste in gardening’; here Joseph Spence: ‘Mr Pope and Kent were the first that practiced [sic] painting in gardening’ and ‘Mr Kent was the sole beginner of the national taste’; and here Daines Barrington ‘It was reserved for Kent to realise these beautiful descriptions [of the poet Spenser’s], for which he was peculiarly adapted by being a painter; as the true test of perfection in a modern garden is, that a landscape painter would choose it for a composition’
By 1752, Spence could describe landscape gardening entirely in painterly terms: ‘In all the finest landscapes of the best painters there is what they call the foreground, the middle-ground, and the lontananza or background.’
All of this without even mentioning Kent’s principal admirer, Horace Walpole, who claimed for him that he had invented ‘an art that realizes painting and improves Nature’. Brown on the other hand he dismissed as a lesser being who had ‘set up on a few ideas of Kent and Mr. Southcote’. However, for all Kent’s fa-la-las and foibles, Capability Brown was the finer and more famous figure.
Yet I hear the murmurings of one or two critics: that if he had such a painter’s eye why is the outlying eye-catcher at Rousham too small for its position? and why did he take care to follow a great gardening artist like Charles Bridgeman as often as he did, if it were not that he could add a few flourishes with no great expenditure of energy? – and his furniture lacks grace. It is heavy. It reflects some lost conception of the past, that what is old must be primitive. It has been scribbled out with a thick pencil and built to match.