Dr R of Herefordshire, himself a dedicated archaeologist of the shorts, long socks and sandals school, is anxious first to categorise earthworks by the use for which they were intended (saw-pits, charcoaling sites, hill-forts etc.) and second to distinguish constructed earthworks from natural eruptions in the soil that happen to suit some purpose of man.
He is a man who believes that classification creates data, that data beget statistics, and that from statistics we derive truth. The darts, dents and domes of Capability Brown, the purpose of which is less readily derived, tend to defy such categories – indeed should you strike upon any additional ways of classifying Brownian earthworks, be good enough to let me know and I shall refer your suggestions to him.
I am in receipt of one such from the very learned Rev. H of Whitchurch who asks how she is to describe a grass earthwork only apparent from its absence. She references the ridge and furrow that characterises the mediaeval open field system, and asks how we should classify the effort that the great Capability Brown has put into casting down the ridge and furrow beyond the lake at Burton Constable so as to improve the composition, while increasing the yields of the grass.
Rather than further fine the niceties of this distinction, I shall boldly turn the question to ask whether one can necessarily distinguish Brown’s earthworks from those of any other practitioner, and the answer is no. Earth-working is part of a garden tradition that long pre-dated Brown.
His large scale earthworks have their precedents all over the country – at Blenheim, Castle Kennedy, Houghton, Kirkharle, Moor Park, Wanstead, among many others – Charles Bridgeman being among the greatest exponents. These works had been both commended and criticised in their own day in very much the same terms as were used against Brown.
His smaller scale works were in the tradition of levelling (qua making flat) that had been commended by Jan van der Groen in 1675 before Brown was born: ‘Nature, which often demonstrates itself in a disorderly fashion, can be improved, embellished, made more amusing and ornamental by human effort. Here hills and mountains are shovelled away, there valleys and lowlands are raised, one transforms water into land and land into water. All these activities are performed in pleasure gardens in which fields are made more regular, that is, made equal in shape on both sides. The number of experiences, innovations and techniques by which nature is being assisted are numerous.’
Equally it had been disparaged by Batty Langley, when Brown was only 10 years old: ‘there is nothing adds so much to the Pleasure of a Garden, as those great Beauties of Nature, Hills and Valleys, which, by our regular Coxcombs, have ever been destroyed, and at a very great Expence also in Levelling.’
Ah, but before Dr R reaches for his solar topee, I should make an introductory note with respect to levelling. This is the single word most used to describe Brown’s earthworks. It sounds pejorative (making everything flat and monotonous au Jan van der Groen), however no insult was intended: the 18th century would have employed it to neutral effect, meaning ‘playing with levels’.
When roused, Dr R is said to wield his topee to lethal effect, spinning it through the air like a Frisbee.