Spring brings out the cynic in men like Captain Ken – it is the sudden and unpredictable change in the look of things. Mr Honey on the other hand grows steadily less repressible. ‘Hark at the lark!’ he is wont to say, at every chirrup from a passing sparrow.
The varied moods of my acquaintance were brought to sunder-pitch as conversation broke out over the illustrations of country houses published by Angus, Watts and Neale, the Copperplate and European Magazines and their ilk at the end of the 18th century. The Captain was anxious to make the point that all of these pictures were composed in the same way: the house in the middle, looking very splendid no doubt, and the lawns running down to the water, the artist having taken his position on the far side. His conclusion, that is, the Captain’s, was that these compositions were essentially generic, that their function was not to show off any particular landscape of any particular estate, but only to show that the estate in question did have a designed landscape.
Mr Honey however bounced back with the reply that he thought any view across water jolly nice and that’s just where he would want to stand to make a picture, if he could paint that is. Having made this point he swung his coat-tails with vigour so as to get the heat of the fire on his behind – I should say that his is a capacious bottom and this has provided him with the low centre of gravity essential to a satisfactory bounce.
Conversation had swung into this quarter after a communication recently delivered by Mrs L of Ilkley who has asked for any good illustrations of landscapes designed by designed by that cynosure of science, Capability Brown, made immediately after he had finished work on a place. Perhaps she has in mind the lecture on Georgian landscape painting that her fellow Yorkshireman, Patrick Eyres, has promised for Scampston on April 28th. In a bid to re-establish amity between the Captain and Mr H I appealed to the Bar who pronounced that on the balance of probability, the Captain was likely to be correct, however Mr H was also right to say that views across water had a particular charm. He then referred the question to me, and, after some reflection, I offered my opinion that we should divide topographical artists into three groups and place those to which the Captain referred into the third: top of the pile would then be those who painted or drew numerous different sites. I am drawn, if you’ll forgive the word, to Samuel Hieronymus Grimm who travelled the country sketching for the Dean of Lincoln among others, and to the ‘before’ pictures in Humphry Repton’s red books. Both men were concerned to show what seemed to them odd about a landscape, as well as what had succeeded – both men were engaged with what they saw, and that is a value. In the same category I’d place Richard Wilson (particularly his paintings of Wilton), William Tomkins and Paul Sandby, the latter especially for his pictures of Luton and Nuneham Courtenay. Spyers is very much to be admired also, amongst others for the sets of Fisherwick and Hampton Court.
Next come those who more or less painted one site. The Turners at Petworth, however valuable they may be as works of art, do not contribute so greatly to our understanding of landscape, but I do value Francis Towne’s marvellous paintings of Ugbrooke as much as I do Nicholson’s of Scampston – now they would be worth an exhibition in themselves. Indeed it was on that brighter note that the evening came to its end.
I however was moved to extempore thought – those platforms that one sometimes finds – level spaces, often enough beside a drive, and increasingly in the work of Humphry Repton. They indicate view-points, where a party might stop for a picnic, whether taken in the shelter of the trap or out of it. But my thought turned to a question sent me by Dr Z of Warsaw, who has asked me to explain to him what a view is, and I would say to him that a view is often a thing to be seen from just such a flat platform, but the flatness of the platform is due to the workings of the horse and trap: a trap has no breaks and the horse can neither stand still on a slope, nor pull off from one (the poor animal may slip and fall and with that, down goes the trap and all the people on it). It is necessary therefore for all drives that rise across slopes to have such level places, for taking the view, for resting the horse, and for allowing traffic from the other direction to pass.