My good friend Captain Ken has laid before me his proposal that a caucus of Professors can be a volatile thing.
He referred to a strange combination of effects, whereby such a group of scholars may adopt unquestioned a set of bright but speculative ideas just because they are generated by a fellow academic too well respected to be criticised. Since the caucus is such an influential thing, these ideas may bypass critical examination and rapidly find their way into the mainstream of public thought.
Such were the aperçus that came to mind this morning as I turned from my breakfast to a comment by Professor W of South Yorkshire, who is determined to speak only of ‘Brownian’ landscape as a means of avoiding finicky discussion of what the gardener Capability Brown actually did, and splashing instead a big ‘XX’ across the page.
There are several ways in which honest men and women can be diverted in their quest to comprehend Brown’s work. ‘Brownization’ has long been recognised as the process by which in the decades and indeed centuries that followed Brown’s death, landscapes where Brown was reputed to have worked were made more ‘Brownian’, that is to say, more and more like golf courses – because tradition had it, until the 1980s, that the perfect Brown landscape looked like a golfing fairway.
Fair enough – ah! – but you have spotted the flaw in my presentation: it is impossible to describe Brownization without first defining ‘Brownian’ a little more clearly. For the Brown Advisor, the features of a landscape are ‘Brownian’ if the landscape itself is attributed to Brown, and if the features are of a kind that crops up on other Brown landscapes. They are ‘Brownian’ in that they might even be signatures of Brown’s work, they suggest that he might have been involved
So far so good, but in common parlance among Professor W and his friends, a landscape can be said to be ‘Brownian’ merely because it looks like a Brown. Those who use it in that way draw on some nebulous idea of what a Brown landscape looks like (for example that it looks like a golf course). But the unexpected result, led by Professor W himself amongst the professors, has been to use ‘Brownian’ to evoke the idea of a vast cultural movement: ’Brownianism’, which spanned the whole United Kingdom in the mid-eighteenth century, with a host of improvers of one kind or another who peppered the island with 18th century parks. Brown himself is thus reduced to a bit player, singled out by chance from the cultural melée that is known as the English Landscape Movement
The disquieting consequence of Brownianism is that Brown’s extraordinary and towering achievement, his prolixity, his invention, are lost in the background noise – just as we lose the refinement of his work in its subsequent Brownization, just as music is lost in the iterations of musak.
There is nothing but good will in the pronouncements of these professors and I have found that a quiet word to the ear can stir from too easy a rest their more pensive muse.