There is something comforting in the resilience of nationalism.
I am pleased to say that all the weight of years that I have accumulated in offering advice on the subject of landscape still counts for nothing in the world of John Bull and his friends, who say, ‘we live on an island and we don’t have to pay attention to any of your new, foreign ideas’. Thus when I made the simple proposal that Capability Brown could not have done what he did but for the influence of his great French predecessor, André le Nôtre, my idea was dismissed as ‘ill-conceived’, ‘ill-considered’, and ‘idiotic’. Yet was I not altogether displeased by this assault . My audience (I had been so ill-advised as to button-hole that genial but choleric crowd, the skittles club, at the Tatler’s Waste-Bin) reassured me in their response that, in spite of Syria and the collapse of so many political unions, the world still spins in the same old way – 600 years after Agincourt, 300 years since Louis XIV was bloodied at Blenheim, and still we have nothing to learn from the French.
This is the magnificent bigotry that can create an empire in order to impose upon its luckless subjects the rules of cricket.
Here, for the less sporting, are three very clear markers on the descent of the landscape tradition from le Nôtre to Brown.
First, Versailles is an enormous, but a profoundly humanist, statement and Brown took from it scale, ambition and extent. For both men there was no limit to what landscape might achieve in human hands.
Second, both men used geometry to create landscapes that were harmonious and balanced.
Third, both created landscapes that were profoundly anthropocentric. They put their clients at the centre of the design, rather than (let us say) Nature.
In short Brown never questioned the basic assumptions that le Nôtre had made about the purpose of landscape, but instead applied himself to finding solutions that were as far removed from le Nôtre’s as he could get. He was doing the same thing but, being English, he was doing it differently.