Days come in late March or in April, when Spring has not wholly disentangled herself from Winter, but there is a freshness to the air and it is better to be out than to be in. So I am advised by the good folk of Health and Safety , who have asked me to warn you that happiness can cause damage in confined spaces.
Thus I found myself walking through the sprung grass of the heaven on earth that is Wentworth Castle in company with the capaciously informed Mrs F of Barnsley. The birds sang above us, the trees strained to burst their buds and join in a celebratory flag-waving of new leaf, and she asked me how one could use the evidence provided by the landscape itself for attributing a design to that most capable of men, that bright knocker on the door of the kitchen garden, Capability Brown. Since we were at Wentworth Castle, where he may have worked, the question was pertinent. There is then some documentary evidence for the attribution, though this is dubious, and the editor, John Phibbs, has summarised the debate in ‘Yorkshire Capabilities’, Volumes 75 and 76 of the New Arcadian Journal.
Her request now was for some guidance to any parallels that there might be between what we could see at Wentworth and Brown’s work elsewhere. As she guided me around the grounds I did notice some . Forgive me if I set one or two of these out here, by way of illustration.
If Brown did work at Wentworth Castle it is most likely that he was there in the 1750s and was involved with the extensions to the serpentine. These first brought the narrow lake across the east front of the house. The parallel is to be made with Chillington where the lake is said to have been extended so the family could see water from the house. The serpentine is also on the edge of the landscape and provides a surface on which boats might glide smoothly and take in views of the Castle. Thus the water sits at Kirtlington, Wycombe Abbey and Flambards. At all of these the water is backed by tree planting, even though the views from the house run over the top of the plantation.
One would expect there to have been clumps and scatters of trees on the house side of the serpentine so as to make sight of the narrow strip of water at its narrowest at best intermittent. Thus he treated the stream that links the two lakes at Packington. The water, with its stone-faced dam, also acted as a deer-proof stock boundary, and this with the tree planting on both sides would have acted in the same way as Brown’s new river, or Low Lake, at Scampston.
The ‘ancient city’ on the hill directly in front of the house predates Brown, but its role in creating a highly Claudean view to the ESE is very Brownian. This view is framed to the south by the Rotunda and picked out by other features – the Obelisk, the Tuscan Temple. One would expect Brown to have created the illusion of a great river running from the south and then turning east to disappear in the Claudean composition. The two pools above the Serpentine here could have had that effect, with careful tree planting (such as was indeed carried out) to conceal the dams. One would also expect a great widening of the Serpentine opposite the Tuscan Temple, so as to create the sense of a wide reach of water running away from the house to the east. This also was done.
The termination of the serpentine might have been awkwardly square, but there is a Brownian bow in the bank and a slight toe, which is sufficient to give the illusion when walking along its bank, that the water might indeed turn to the west and then continue south.
Spoil has been dropped on the west side of the serpentine in the line of this Claudean view, but is so carefully feathered into the natural soil levels as to be imperceptible.
However there are much larger quantities of spoil on the north side of the Claudean view. Presumably this was dug out for the various extensions to the serpentine. It has been dropped in a very large heap but not feathered or landscaped. Brown did this where he knew the land was to be planted over and was not worth spending time on. This planted heap does several things at once. In views from the house it turns the eye towards the Claudean view; by raising the planting on a mound it connects it visually with the woodland that flanks the ‘ancient city’ and so appropriates it into the landscape; and it also conceals the surface and line of the Brown-date approach, which ran in through the arch to the east and crossed the Palladian bridge. I would not be surprised to find that there had been an urn or seat on the top, or that a tent had been put up there in the summer.
The south approach leads into the east counter-walk of the avenue, and is thus concealed in views from the house. This again is Brownian. Though the route taken by the approach does not have the Brownian flourish of his approaches down the avenues at Blenheim, Holkham, King’s Weston, or Castle Ashby, but it has its match in the approach on the 12 o’clock ride at Coombe Abbey and in Samuel Lapidge’s design for the approach down the avenue at Burley-on-the-Hill. The South Avenue itself, though it addresses the Palladian front, is wholly unBrownian.
It is so often in the smaller, minor earthworks that Brown shows his hand most clearly. I saw none of these at Wentworth Castle, but the parkland has been ploughed, and if he was involved it can only have been for a brief time.
These few features will be enough to illumine the character of the argument. While Brown used the design ideas that one can see at Wentworth, many others did as well. The one that strikes me as showing the confidence of a master is the spoil heap on the north side of the Claudean view. This is a bold stroke: it is fully in view from the house and close to it, it solves a number of problems in one go, and the fact that the spoil has been left in crude heaps shows great confidence in the effect that the designer was trying to bring off. There is something very like it in the spoil heap on the west side of the great south view at Scampston.
It is this heap that suggests to me the hand of the professional, turning a problem (what to do with the spoil) into a cheap and effective contribution to the design.
The question of attribution remains open of course, and while we celebrate the tercentenary of the great man we should remember that it is the great landscapes that really count. We do not have to know who did a thing before we judge that it is good.