Freshly returned from his wanderings and laden with letters, the Brown Advisor finds a sheaf of inquiries, garnered and gathered in from correspondents in the United States, courtesy of Mrs F of Philadelphia. Over all runs the question of authenticity and the theme is one of trust: can one ever tell if any particular piece of landscaping is really Brown’s? And – I believe the innuendo is there – if you can’t tell, then why should we worry about him?
As I consider the matter, which returns amongst my correspondents like a bilious complaint, it seems to me that no amount of theorising will clear it up, nor will what one might call the argument from analogy (that a given piece of landscaping is probably by Brown because there is something very like it at another of his landscapes) – Mrs F and her Americans like facts. Surmise, no matter how well founded, will not do.
Let us therefore turn to the difficult case of Belvoir Castle. Consider then the following series of questions:
Qu: How much did Brown propose to alter the landscape that he found?
Ans: Surprisingly little. The Duchess’ Garden existed in some shape in 1779 when Spyers came – he shows Merlin’s Cave on his plan – and that remained the core of Brown’s pleasure ground – though it was thoroughly worked over by the 5th Duchess after Brown’s death. Authenticity score: low.
Qu: Do we know that Brown actually did any work at Belvoir Castle (setting out for example)?
Ans: Brown produced his plan in 1780 and died in 1783. His famous complaint of 1782 ‘Brown grows very old and nothing done towards the ornament of the Castle. Since it is denied us to live long, let us do something to shew we have lived’ suggests that nothing much had happened at that point, but he did charge for what seems to have been a substantial number of visits to Belvoir and his plan was adopted by his client the 4th Duke, who did begin planting, so his agent recommended planting in October 1782, with the proviso: ‘I mean it to be exactly what Brown has Drawn in his Plan which I have consulted.’ Authenticity score: high.
Qu: What actual work was carried out while Brown was still alive?
Ans: The gardened slopes below the castle were thinned and replanted, redeploying the old yew hedges as groups and evergreen clumps. Cliff and Holywell Woods were planted – they run behind the village of Woolsthorpe and tie it into the landscape. The belt that runs up from the lake to Woolsthorpe is also on Brown’s plan and was planted at this time. Authenticity score: moderate, given that these plantings are shown on Brown’s plan; that Brown was visiting Belvoir; and that the estate had adopted his plan; however these changes only affected a small part of the landscape.
Qu: Was Brown’s plan continued after his death?
Ans: We have records of the planting after the death of the 4th Duke (Brown’s client) in 1787 when the estate was managed by the Duke of Beaufort (guardian of the 5th Duke during his minority and himself another of Brown’s clients). Plantings include the ridge to Stathern, 3 miles away (the woods run far beyond the area mapped by Brown’s surveyor Spyers). Other works include the road to Woolsthorpe, moved to the place recommended by Brown on his plan. Authenticity score: moderate, these improvements were indicated on Brown’s plan, but he could not have overseen them personally.
Qu: Did the 5th Duchess also follow the Brown plan?
Ans: The lakes are a good example but the design, as is often the case, increasingly embellished Brown’s original. Authenticity score: low, but then had Brown lived he would inevitably have modified his plan himself, as he did at Burton Constable.
Qu: is today’s Belvoir Castle genuine?
Ans: it stands on the foundations of the old castle, and plays the same part in the landscape as Brown intended his castle to play. However its transmogrification by the 5th Duchess is a good example of her embellishment of Brown’s idea. Authenticity score: low
Given this unclear relationship with Brown as author – unclear but very typical of the landscapes that he worked on, one might ask what influence the discovery of his plans has had on the estate.
I must answer that just as Brown’s contribution will always be partly mysterious (both here and everywhere he worked), so is the inspiration that the discovery of his plans has provided. Undoubtedly they gave a push and a steer for the estate. Above all however the discovery has encouraged a degree of care in the estate’s attitude to landscape – it matters whether we cut back a hedge here, or take down a tree there; and by thinking about things a little more carefully, one can make them work better in scenery that is more beautiful. It is a matter of respect.