Dr R is in something of a state. She writes from Peterborough as though she had been about to choose between the dangers of a precipice to the left and a large angry octopus to the right when an articulated lorry came and parked right on top of her. Sometimes one’s mind can be so frozen with indecision that the articulated truck provides a blessed release.
Dr R has a passion for mosses, but her natural curiosity has led her to ask why Capability Brown would have planted evergreens if his aim was to reproduce nature in an idealised form (when evergreens play such a small part in the English flora). I could find no flaw in her logic and therefore it was the premise and conclusion of her argument that I brought to the club when we recently convened at the Tatler’s Waste-Bin.
My good friend Bar (since he took silk he has been circumspect in the use of his proper name, but he is content with this alias), Bar, then, introduced the theme with a history of the tradition. He was quick to remind us that Defoe had written of his hero William III that he was ‘delighted with the decoration of ever greens, as the greatest addition to the beauty of a garden, preserving the figure of a place even in the roughest part of an inclement and tempestuous winter. …the gentlemen followed every where, with such a gust that the alteration is indeed wonderful throughout the whole kingdom.’
Even our greater naturalists were pleased to give evergreens space, in their proper place, here is Philip Southcote in 1755: ‘the brighter evergreens, which are the shades in summer, are the lights in winter.’
There was universal praise for William Ireland’s evergreen ride at Woburn. Here Humphry Repton (‘I must not omit my full tribute of applause to that part of the drive, at Woburn, in which evergreens alone prevail; it is a circumstance of grandeur, of variety, of novelty, and, I may add, of winter comfort, that I never saw adopted in any other place on so magnificent a scale.’) was at one with the irascible John Byng and the specialist plantsman Peter Collinson.
However the majority were of a mind with Uvedale Price and were as puzzled as Dr R by the use of evergreens: ‘of whatever trees the established woods of the country are composed, the same, I think, should prevail in the new plantations, or those two grand principles, harmony, and unity of character, will be destroyed. It is very usual however, when there happens to be a vacant space between two woods, to fill it up with firs, larches, &c.; if this be done with the idea of connecting those woods, which should be the object, nothing can be more opposite than the effect.’
That friend of Capability Brown, the poet and gardener William Mason hated conifers and assumed that Brown mistakenly used them as nurses
‘Lur’d by their hasty shoots, and branching stems,
Planters there are who choose the race of pine
For this great end erroneous;’
The Captain regarded the resolution to Dr R’s question as lying there: evergreens were intended as nurse trees, and if occasionally they survive in Brown’s landscapes it is either through neglect and carelessness, or because they happened to look well – around the lake at Hatfield Forest for example. Mr Honey then being moved to a speculation on Brown’s skill as a yodeller when young, our discussions came to an end.
This is all very well, but I have to apologise to Dr R – such a weak response would hardly repay the effort of getting out from under the truck. I shall therefore appropriate the next dozen or so posts to a treatment of Brown’s evergreen planting, genus by genus. We shall not touch on Brown the vocalist, but let us see nonetheless if we can take things a little further.