My fellows at the Tatler’s Waste-bin have asked me to make this fourth be our final resumé of progress in the study of the work of Capability Brown during 2016, his tercentennial, his triumphal year. They fear lest we show too great a partiality for Dr Sarah Rutherford’s work. Here then is a further miscellany of observations largely gleaned from her text.
Stroud: The onslaught of his enemies in the picturesque school caused Brown to lose his reputation for the ensuring 150 years
The Norfolk school are more ambivalent, allowing that we know too little to be able to say how his work was regarded. However both the Norfolks and Dr R emphasise the degree to which Brown’s genius was appreciated in his own life and this is in itself a great step forward. Indeed, like Jane Brown, Dr R, takes Cowper’s savage satire on the ‘omnipotent magician’ and turns it into a paean of praise for Brown. This is well and good, but the Brown Advisor would have us go further: at many places Brownian designs continued to be executed long after the great man’s death. Thus Mrs Montague at Sandleford Priory: ‘happily [Brown] had given us a design for everything that intended to be done here and we are now embellishing the grounds to the south’. Even the landscapes of his greatest critics, Foxley and Downton Castle, have plenty of evidently Brownian characteristics. Brown’s hand in all this posthumous work was however smoothed away by the tide of history.
Stroud took it, for ease of analysis, that Brown had a single way of designing throughout his life. This enabled her to come to conclusions about his work in the lump
Norfolk and Dr R took a similar position. The Brown Advisor however would have us believe that Brown’s work was ceaselessly explorative, that his work constantly developed and that by the end of his life he had command of a wide range of different styles.
Stroud would claim that Brown’s design sprang from a tradition that had begun earlier in the eighteenth century
The Norfolk school would hold that Brown was the heir to a tradition of landscaping parks that went back to the middle ages. The Brown Advisor would entirely endorse this claim, but would like us to go further: surely Brown himself was conscious of this tradition and his later landscapes were an attempt to revive the landscapes of the middle ages.
Stroud held that Brownian design was the manifestation of English ideas of political freedom and toleration
The Norfolk school has endorsed this. Dr R on the other hand has laid more emphasis on the background of war and Jacobitism. The Brown Advisor would have us go further again: Brownian landscape is not just an expression of the freedom of the individual; Brown also created the landscapes in which those freedoms might thrive.
Stroud felt that she had found the best of the meaningful documentation of Brown’s life and times.
The Norfolk school has put the case that further documentary research will help to clear up all the remaining mystery about where Brown worked, what Brown did there and why he did it. Sarah Rutherford on the other hand has stressed that it is impossible even to write a definitive list of the places where he worked, let alone tell exactly what he did at the places where we know he did work. The Brown Advisor would have us take a middle course. Stroud did not undertake any research in estate archives and there is no doubt that these are telling us a great deal. However it remains the case, as Dr R has put it so well, that no amount of documentary research will ever enable us to tell exactly what he did anywhere. This is a problem exacerbated by Brown’s conscious pursuit of anonymity in his work.
Stroud endeavoured to describe a characteristic Brownian landscape
The Norfolk school sensibly moved away from the idea that there was a typical Brown landscape to the argument that there are no signatures that uniquely identify his style or differentiate it from is foreman. Dr R goes further with a particular mention of Brown’s ‘aversion of shewing a road’. The Brown Advisor however would go further in two respects The first is a proposition that if we find a landscape with more than five of the 100 or so devices that do regularly crop up in his work, then we might start to think of a landscape as Brownian. These devices of course include ‘the aversion of showing a road’. The second is introduced in the next proposition, on Brown’s foremen.
Stroud paid little attention to Brown’s foremen
The Norfolk school has undertaken a major reassessment of these foremen. Dr R has gone further to make an assessment of what a client might get for a given some of money. The Brown Advisor is particularly anxious for us to accept one particular contractual arrangement as common. This was a situation in which Brown found, appointed and managed a foreman, who was then paid directly by the client. In such cases no connection between Brown and the foreman appears in the accounts – indeed Brown’s name might not appear in the estate accounts at all. Yet this was the arrangement at Alnwick, Berrington, Burton Constable and Chatsworth among many other places. So even where we know there was another man in place and being paid, we should look around carefully before we declare for certain that Brown was not involved as well.