Fair enough Mr M, you have been locked in a cupboard somewhere in Dorset, you are not free to say where, and you will not be released until you have written a vibrant guide to the work carried out in that country by that wunderkind Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown.
You have scratched a desperate appeal for help onto the back of a passing snail and by the great good services of the Royal Mail the creature has been brought to me at my hotel in Warwickshire. There is plenty to go on in Dorset, with at least two of his finest master-pieces, Sherborne Castle and Milton Abbey, but you are asking me for some sparkling detail that will bring the great man himself to life.
Clearly you cannot delay for a plenary meeting, and having reviewed your request with my colleagues at the Tatler’s Waste-Bin via the telephone, we have concurred in the proposal that you would be best served by a dish of comments from those who knew him.
Here then is William Cowper, sarcastic, but honest: ‘Lo, he comes!/ Th’omnipotent magician, Brown, appears!’; here his fellow poet, James Woodhouse, as querulous: ‘No wealthy Wizard, here, with haughty pales,/Impounds large portions of those Hills and Dales’; here Humphry Repton equally sour at Ealing ‘like Rasselas, in the happy vale of Abyssinia, we regret the confinement of this belt, and should rejoice at emancipation from the magic circle by which we are restrained. Yet the exercise and pleasure of such a length of walk is an object not to be hastily relinquished’ and finally here is the vicious Sir Richard Payne Knight: ‘Thin, meagre genius of the bare and bald’.
Moving then out of the mud and up to the sunlit uplands of his admirers and their approval, we arrive first at the early and generous recognition of his genius by the architect, Isaac Ware: ‘It is beneath [the architect] to say this is Chinese, or that Le Notre introduced in France; thus Brown disposed the ground in such a garden; or there is example for this at Stow: he has the design and he may be original. Every thing under such a hand will have truth, because every thing will rise from nature’; then comes the objective assessment of the Rev. William Gilpin at Burghley: ‘the magic of ys is so great yt it has given ye house a new situation: from a bottom he has raised it upon a hill’; and again at Blenheim: ‘but whatever ye house may be, ye grounds abt it, especially since they received their last improvemt from ye genius of Mr Brown, are in ye highest style of magnificence’. Here is William Dean who knew his work at Croome so intimately: ‘Such – in scanty outline – is the enchanting scenery, combining to a high degree, the grand and the beautiful in landscape; which the magic touch of art, aided by few natural advantages, has caused to start up, from the midst of dreary desolation’; His client Elizabeth Anson at Moor Park ‘Brown [is] an Artist who scorned to find difficulties in executing any great or beautiful Idea, & made nothing of raising or levelling any spot to the height desired … Had we been possessed of a Magic Wand to execute at once all that was planned or proposed, I should have ventured to invite your Ladyship & Mr. Yorke to take up with the indifferent accommodation of the Inn I have mentioned’; The Rev William Mason, Brown’s keenest supporter and friend to William Gilpin, in satirical vein: ‘To Richmond come, for see, untutor’d Brown
Destroys those wonders which were once thy own.
Lo, from his melon-ground the peasant slave
Has rudely rush’d, and levell’d Merlin’s Cave;
Knock’d down the waxen Wizard, seiz’d his wand,
Transform’d to lawn what late was Fairy land;
And marr’d, with impious hand, each sweet design
Of Stephen Duck, and good Queen Caroline’.
Here next is William Marshall at Fisherwick ‘that great genius in architecture and wonderful displayer of sylvan scenes, the celebrated LANCELOT BROWN, Esq. whose genius has afforded fresh proofs of true taste in nature’s beauties, as seemed unknown before his time’; and here comes Lord Verulam at Wynnstay ‘situated in a well wooded park which has all the advantages that the genius of Mr Brown, who is coming down here to superintend his works, can call for’; and here Hannah Moore at Sandleford ‘This place is really grown into great beauty, the ground lies remarkably well, and Browne just touched it with his magic wand, but did not live to finish it.’
Finally then come the Yorke ladies: ‘Mr Brown has been leading me such a fairy circle and his magic wand has raised such landscapes to the eye, not visionary, for they were all there, but his touch has brought them out with the same effect as a painter’s pencil upon canvas, that after having hobbled over rough ground to points that I had never seen before for two hours, I return half tired and half foot-sore and must really back off.’
In sum, when one brings these passages together we find Brown regarded, even by his enemies, as a magician, a creator of fairyland, a man whose genius it was to unlock the genius loci itself – the sort of genius in short, whose magic, coupled with a benign call upon the imagination, will have Mr M out of his cupboard in a trice.