At a genial evening just past in the upstairs rooms at the Tatler’s Waste-Bin, conversation turned to the idea of ‘cultural landscape’ and the fond attachment people form to particular places.

Mr P of Hackney, an occasional member of our circle,a well-built sporting young gentleman, currently with the Fabians, though he chose to introduce himself as a conservative anarchist and not ill-disposed to Edmund Burke – at any rate, Mr P proposed that we should give value to landscapes in proportion as people are attached to them. I have to report that the talk became general and heated and the Brown Advisor was drawn to open four distinct lines of attack on Mr P’s position:

  • We should beware any attempt to quantify responses that are fundamentally emotional. Bureaucrats will always seek to grade landscapes so that they can allocate resources to their protection. The result for a landscape gardener like Capability Brown will be protection for his larger works (Blenheim, Longleat, Chatsworth) at the expense of his equally important but less showy smaller estates, his villas and town houses, his Denham Place, his Cadland, his Howsham, his Digswell Rectory.
  • Any attempt to grade places in Europe in terms of people’s attachment to them is bound to rely on the recent past. European landscapes have been under human management for 7,000 years or more, but we cannot hope to run a cumulative index of how they have been valued over that time. To value a landscape because people living today still remember when its 19th century coal-mine was in production, is to make a valuation with a very short time horizon.
  • There can be no assumption that a landscape has more cultural value if more people use it and interact with it. Antarctica, the Amazon rain forest, the Sahara desert and the Himalays have immeasurable value just because so few people know them and humanity has left so little mark on them. Equally many places, now disregarded and forgotten, were once centres of human activity.
  • Implicit in the theory of cultural landscape is the idea that all places are fundamentally equal: the slum and the vision of co-operation that is Saltaire; the model village and the council estate. This is absurd. We must be able to say that some landscapes are better than others, so long as we first set out the terms by which that importance is to be judged. So, for example, the landscapes of Capability Brown are better than those of his 18th century rivals: on any measure Brown’s Blenheim, his Kiddington, his Kirtlington are better landscapes than Richard Woods’ Buckland.

Our hostess, Miss K of Leeds (I have translated her comment for southern readers) concluded that had the row been cut off 20 minutes sooner it would not have been cut off too soon. She was broadly in agreement with that master of cool, Mr K of Nunhead (no relation), who, after a fitting period of silence, knocked his pipe out on the hearth and speculated that this might be the time to generate an alternative to deconstruction as a means of analysing value, whether for landscape or anything else. On that the party dispersed, agreeably enough, to convene again in a month’s time.