Captain Ken commented to me only the other day that though he can walk 30 miles across country without thinking much of it, after twenty minutes in a picture gallery his back aches, his arches have fallen, a terrible feeling of torpor overcomes him, his body cries out for a pot of tea and a simple bench to rest himself upon.
He went on to admit that these feelings he has always ascribed to a spiritual or intellectual weakness in himself – Philistinism no less – that he has been anxious to conceal. Yet, he concluded, set him down in a Windsor chair with a good fire and a hot toddy and he is as content as anybody to pass an evening in turning the pages of a picture book.
The subject was introduced on an evening when, having occasion to visit a maiden aunt in Hampton Wick, he had called in at the Court to see John Spyers’ pictures.
I was not in a position to diagnose his infirmity, but could turn directly to the exhibition, which I had had the good fortune to tour only a day or two earlier with Drs D and E, as well as Mr D and Bob.
Thus I can make my recommendations for the Captain and for any others who share his weakness.
1 This is an unprecedented exhibition that anyone who has an interest in Hampton Court’s master-gardener, Capability Brown, will find useful – nay essential.I advise a rapid tour of the pictures however – no more than Captain Ken’s twenty minutes.
2 Following the tour, buy the excellent catalogue, which has all the pictures and more in it, retire to the coffee shop and read – no more than one and a half hours will be required for this.
3 Having read the catalogue and taken a light lunch, return to the pictures. I recommend paying particular attention to those of the Fountain Court, the North Vase by the Canal, the Green-house – well, it is hard to be prescriptive, but having read the catalogue these pictures will become deeply absorbing – a couple more hours and then return to the coffee shop for dessert.
4 Come to your own conclusions. Mine begin with one big question: a) what was Spyers trying to show in these pictures? – they are hardly a recommendation of the English style or of its master and Spyers’ long-time employer, Brown. Then we move to lesser ones: b) where is the theatrical planting of shrubs, arranged in rows by height? c) where are the hay-makers that we see in his water-colours of Fisherwick? what was going on in the parkland? d) why are we always told that Brown let the old topiary plants go, when he obviously didn’t? e) why is it all so neglected? f) where are the flowers? g) did Brown design the landscaping around the Cascade in Bushy Park?
Thinking first of those overgrown hollies and yews, I remember the ‘monstrous forms which could not be subdued’ of Repton’s description of the old avenue trees at Wimpole. These trees have not been grown out, but grown up, to impossible heights like the shattered columns of an imperial peristyle along the Appian Way. My thoughts take me on to wonder whether they were shredded in this mannerist fashion to leave room for shrubs underneath. Should we conclude that in his design for Hampton Court Brown abandoned theatrical planting and surrendered to the idea of the grove, of cultivating groups of shrubs grown under trees?
Could it be that the Empress of Russia (like a University of Texas) simply bought the entire archive, and all the scraps that Spyers had in his possession, even those sketches that he knocked out over lunch to sharpen his skill as a topographer, were shipped out to the Gulf of Finland? Alternatively, was it Spyers’ intention to whistle-blow on the poor state of maintenance at Hampton Court?
Of course you will go to the exhibition, because everyone must, but I urge you to look carefully at your response to these pictures: is this actually what English landscape looked like, and have we for the two and a half centuries since been living the lie that in the eighteenth century England’s land was green and pleasant, when actually it was already tired and old, neglected and sad. Has it taken all this time to make that lie a truth?