The Repton Gazette and Brown Advisor

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

164: What are master-classes for?

When it comes to master-classes, it is not only ‘what are master-classes for?’, but ‘who they are for?’, and even, with apologies to grammar, ‘why they are for?’ The best I can do by way of response to these questions is to summarise the sentiments of our head honcho, John Phibbs, who will be leading the April series.

In his opinion no amount of book-reading, no amount of scholarly research, will either explain what a landscape designed by Capability Brown is, or answer the two central questions: what is it for? and how does it work? You may learn from the history books that a wood was planted in his time, that a lake was dug, but so what? – woods are planted all the time, and lakes are dug.

Nor is it easy to go to a Brown landscape and just ‘get it’. The ability to read landscape is not innate. What tends to happen is that we read his work through the prism of our preconceptions, so we see a house, set in a grass field, with a lake at the bottom, and woodland all around. Anything that does not fit that simple pattern we dismiss as unBrownian – a mistake of some kind, unintended by him. Thus we reinforce our misconceptions, find his work rather boring, and adjourn to the tea-room, our pilgrimage thankfully completed.

Is it difficult then, to read landscape with more understanding? Does it require any prior knowledge, beyond an inquiring mind? Far from it – it is no more difficult than standing in front of a painting, while someone explains how to look at it and what the artist was trying to express. John Phibbs has taken all sorts, academics and dog-walkers, courting couples who accidentally got caught up in one of his tours and enthusiasts who have travelled across the world to join him.

Why then have Claremont and Fawsley been chosen for these master-classes?

First because they are some distance apart; and second because at each one Brown was dealing with a quite different set of problems:

Claremont, Surrey (11th April), an idiosyncratic villa, with little room for parkland, an insanely rich client, and an unusually sophisticated pleasure ground; this is one of few places where Brown designed the house and was able to choose its location and orientation. What distinguishes it from others, such as Berrington and Broadlands, is that here he was working with a landscape that had already been very highly and expensively wrought up by his great predecessors Charles Bridgeman and William Kent. There was an additional challenge then in working out ways in which to fuse several different styles of gardening into a coherent whole.

Fawsley Hall, Northamptonshire (15th April), another old house, but this time with the full box of chocolates: gardens, pleasure grounds, extensive parkland, interesting buildings and wonderful topography. The great pleasure of Fawsley is that despite being within spitting distance of Daventry and despite its obvious quality, it should be more or less unknown.

NB We were going to run a third at Weston Park. This has now been postponed, so if you were thinking of coming to it, you might want to shift your attention to Fawsley or Claremont.

Now let me recommend you to contact, and reserve your place.

Since we must advertise, then John would also like you to know that he has two complementary books on Brown coming out this year: Capability Brown, designing the English Landscape (Rizzoli) and Place-making, the art of Capability Brown (Historic England). Both of them crackers, as he constantly assures me.


76: What did Brown have against avenues?


81: How can an orchard be a wilderness?


  1. I like the two key questions, but my ones are variants: ‘What is going on in this picture? and ‘Where is the money coming from?’ (sheep or cattle, I posit!). All strength to master-class givers and book authors. Hard work, all of it.

    • The Brown Advisor

      ‘What is going on in this picture?’ Indeed that precise question is one that our editor John Phibbs will attack at the Claremont master-class. The money might have come from rents or mining or other estates, but neither sheep nor cattle were particularly profitable during Brown’s time. Arable production, which was fuelled by grassland and the manure produced by the stock on it, was more profitable.

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The Brown Advisor©2015

By John Phibbs