Capability Brown was no dandy but a diamond-decent down-home sort of chap and when Mr C of Essex asked me what that great master of gardening Capability Brown might have learned from Kent, I took it to my companions at the Tatler’s Waste-bin who wondered whether he had the county in mind or the man said to have been his master, that coiffed stylist, William Kent.
As regards the county, I could not say – it is hard to judge how much involvement Brown had with the place besides Chilham Castle and the boroughs south-east of London. William Kent is quite another matter, for I notice amongst the papers submitted to me a swell of feeling against the man – a feeling that Kent was puffed up altogether too high by Horace Walpole and his friends in their studies and appreciations of gardening. Though reluctant to come to judgement myself, I have to confess that I tend to the same conclusion. Let us consider that Walpole was actually the same age as Capability Brown, and that he completed the composition of his Essay on Modern Gardening in 1770 when Brown was at the height of his fame, yet Brown gets only his grudging appreciation in the volume; when one considers also that Horace Walpole was a profound snob and that Brown had nothing by way of family or estate to recommend him to a snob; and when finally one considers that phrase of Walpole’s that Kent ‘leapt the fence, and saw that all nature was a garden’ – then one might turn to Kent’s works and ask which fence exactly did Kent leap and where did he have his vision? – at Rousham, his most famous garden, the view out to Upper Heyford was already there – and where else was Kent a-leaping? Then one might say that Walpole was taking some of the ideas of his great contemporary Brown and ascribing them to Kent, because the latter had the European tour under his belt and was a familiar of the great men of taste of his day, of Prince Frederick and Lord Burlington, and was also conveniently dead, and thus eligible for hagiography – and my reason for this line of thought? – nothing describes the passage of Brown’s career so well as this famous phrase of leaping the fence and seeing that all nature was a garden – this he did at Milton Abbey, this he did at Belvoir Castle among his latest works.
To Kent I am happy enough to ascribe the painter’s eye and the attempt to reform classical painting in three dimensions and in real life, to Kent the first attempts to fuse the ancient world of Rome and Greece and the mediaeval of romance, of knights and fine ladies, but no matter what his ambition, to Brown must be ceded the final integration of art into nature.