The Repton Gazette and Brown Advisor

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

205: Was Brown a man of mystery?

I referred in my note 29 to the aversion that the wonder-gardener Capability Brown felt towards ‘shewing a road’ and I judged that his aversion sprang from the desire to disconnect the components, and thus to induce an air of reverie, of dream, en fin, of mystery, into his landscapes.

Perhaps I should have gone further for I am now asked again by Mr W, the hermit of Wardour (note 105), to give more details by way of evidence to show that Brown’s style developed over the course of his career. Evidence then, and the evidence that I would like to bring forward here is in a letter written by Amanda Polwarth in 1778, by which date we may begin to characterise Brown’s output as ‘late work’.

Here she is then, at Wrest: ‘Now I must request you to inform Mama that a great Man has paid us a Visit, which Visit (as happens sometimes with great Men) has ended in very little. You will guess that I mean the illustrious Mr Brown, who walk’d unexpectedly into the Garden on Tuesday Morning …. He did not pay much Attention, or open any Scheme relative to the middle of the Garden. He saw indeed that the Water might appear to come from one Wood & flow into the other, but he did not know whether a winding Water through a straight Avenue might not look inconsistent, & if the Avenue was destroy’d, & part of the Wood clear’d away, it might unravel the Mystery of the Gardens. In short he did not think that any material Alteration could be made anywhere, unless the whole stile of the Place was chang’d except cutting down a few Trees. Neither could I persuade him to make any sketch for the Grove (a Pencil & Paper he thought would do more Harm than good, the Trees should be mark’d upon the Spot) … He concluded with saying that he would call upon Ldy Grey … talk to her, & then call here again, & mark the Trees that should be cut down in the Grove…. Ld. P. had never seen Mr Brown before, & thinks him a very odd Mortal, but entertaining for a little while.’

What draws my attention in this correspondence is that Amanda Polwarth expected Brown to come up with some major alteration at Wrest, and that he refused lest ‘it might unravel the Mystery of the Gardens’, that he wished to limit his alterations to ‘cutting down a few Trees’ and that he would not ‘make any sketch for the Grove’. This is a man in short who seeks to do less and less with a landscape, who does not wish to impose himself, who believes in smaller modifications, and who is reluctant to draw up any kind of master-plan that might be acted on by others – whether because he knew how difficult it can be to express ideas about landscape on a plan, or because a plan once drawn can become a blue-print rather than a more flexible instrument that guides rather than dictates alteration. This ever more gentle, ever more tentative approach to landscape characterises the late work, and I wonder, finally: if Lord Polwarth regarded Brown as ‘very odd’ as a mortal, whether he would have placed him more comfortably as an immortal?

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4 Comments

  1. Dear Sir,

    I have two vexing questions that your sharp mind may go some way to answering? Firstly do we find any evidence of any ‘secret geometry’ within Brown’s garden designs? Secondly do we have any evidence that Brown was a Freemason, a natural way through which to gain more contacts/ clients in the 18th century?

    • The Brown Advisor

      Dear Sir, though naturally open-handed, I find myself obliged to withhold the secrets of our craft. May I suggest therefore that we treat your two questions as distinct? This will enable me to answer the first with a direct ‘yes’: there emphatically is a geometry that underlies much of Brown’s work, and it is clear that his clients were not always aware of it. As to the second, might I recommend that you begin by reading whatever you can find of Wim Oers’s work on the subject of Laeken?
      Respectfully yours,
      The Brown Advisor

  2. Dear Sir,

    Thanks you very much for your response to my questions.

    However, I feel compelled to ask you to elaborate a little further on the subject of ‘hidden geometry’ in several of Brown’s gardens? As first glance it would seem incompatible to have a ‘hidden geometry’ in gardens which were designed largely to be irregular and informal (unless of course he was following Shaftsbury’s recommendations for ‘variety’ within the garden which would incorporate a more harmonious relationship between more formal and naturalistic elements)? Thus the question I pose is ‘what was Brown’s motivation for having a ‘hidden Geometry’ within a garden’?

    Could the explanation be found in that Brown saw evidence of nature’s geometry displayed in plain sight all around him? For example in the symmetry of the honey combe, the leaf, the flower and possible the symmetry of the human body himself?

    On the thorny question of Freemasonry I am sure that you are aware that recent research has established that Brown’s son, also called Lancelot, was a Freemason and belonged to the Somerset House Lodge where he was initiated into the Craft degrees from 1775 (the lodge would later become known as the ‘Royal Somerset House and Inverness Lodge’).This is also one of the lodges frequented by Sir Joseph Banks, advisor to King George III at Kew Gardens. (Banks had joined the Old Horn Lodge, which merged with the Somerset House Lodge in 1774).

    Interestingly in the eighteenth century God was sometimes known to Freemasons as the ‘Grand Geometrician of the Universe’ and Geometry (symbolised by the letter ‘G’- as illustrated on the central column of the frontispiece to Batty Langley’s ‘The Builder’s Jewel’, 1741), the fifth of the seven Liberal Arts, was considered the most important.

    Maybe like father, like son?

    Respectively yours,

    A Shropshire lad.

    • The Brown Advisor

      Dear Shropshire lad, what a very pleasant county to come from, though the mood has I think turned away from the idea that Brown had anything to do with Rectory Wood, Church Stretton. But I suppose the good people of Shropshire will always have the consolations that derive from proximity and easy access to the counties of Herefordshire and Staffordshire, which are so bountifully provided for. As regards geometry, our editor John Phibbs has written largely on Brown’s geometry in his forthcoming volume ‘Place-making’, to be published by Historic England and even now if you sign up on the ‘Unbound’ web-site you can guarantee yourself an early delivery. Further than that, he would recommend that you visit those tombs of his foremen, and indeed of Brown himself, that you can track down. Do let us know meanwhile what you think of Laeken.

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The Brown Advisor©2015

By John Phibbs