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?