Captain Ken is an excellent and reliable fellow, if inclined to extreme scepticism when he comes across any suggestion of the Brown Advisor’s. He numbers archery amongst his past-times and it was while we were amusing ourselves at the butts that he asked me whether I was sticking to the notion that Capability Brown preferred to show off his houses in a head-on view. I said I did, for Brown was a friend to freedom and a foe to forced solutions: if head-on was the most obvious way to see a house, then head-on is what he would provide. Indeed I had already published my opinion on the matter (note 12 for example).
He will worry at a subject, as is the way with most men, and soon he came at me again – did I not take, and have I not evinced often, the greatest pleasure in the judgement and good sense of Professor W? – and did I not know that he had specifically mentioned Brown’s delight in showing two fronts of a house at once, and what did I think of that?
At a loss for a reply, I suggested to the Captain that he might have misunderstood the professor for though Thomas Whately observed the phenomenon (‘buildings, in general, do not appear so large, and are not so beautiful, when looked at in front, as they are when seen from an angular station, which commands two sides at once, and throws them both into perspective’), it was Repton who first popularised the two-fronts view. Yet it seemed to me that there was still some of the question’s kernel left to be needled out of the shell. Consider first Milton Abbey, I urged the Captain on his next bicycling week-end to pay the place a visit, currently the venue for a magnificent exhibition on Brown and his work there, and to ride round it as often as he liked and to tell me on his return how often he got the opportunity to see two sides of the house at once (the answer is not at all). Next I proposed that he take himself to Claremont, where Clive of India had decided that Vanbrugh’s Gothic fantasy (the house he bought), was too low down and caught the damps – a situation to which his health after his long sojourn in India had become vulnerable. Brown rebuilt the house for him and put it high and dry upon an adjacent ridge. There it still sits today, up and awkward, but I understand that Brown, to settle it into the landscape, planted cedar of Lebanon trees at each of the corners. The point I would make to the Captain is that by such plantings the house may have been better settled into its landscape, but by them also the house itself can become a screen, dividing the landscape into two, with a wide extensive view to the east reaching as far as Effingham) and quite another to the west (a very much more composed view with the appearance of a river running away from the house towards the Thames). The cedars and the shrubs that accompanied them gave Clive two landscapes for the price of one, but this style of design does not allow for two fronts to be seen at once. The Captain is a Surrey man and knows his Claremont, but the same thing happens at Kirtlington, at Denham Place and elsewhere.
Of course, I put it to him, there will be occasions where Brown brings the approach to a house in at the corner, but this is incidental, this springs from his desire to conceal the line of the approach in views from the house.
I then turned to the great man’s later work: to Heveningham and to Berrington where he made no pleasure grounds to speak of, and so wound a walk around the skirts of the two houses, dressing them with shrubberies that might incidentally mark the corners and so separate the different scenes that were to be had from each front. Finally I confessed the Clandon exception, which, I assured him as a Surrey man, he must know well, for there the accidents of topography did indeed encourage Brown to develop some of his best effects off the corners of the house – but this was a late work, by which time Brown was busy breaking all the rules he might once have made for himself.
I let loose at the target by way of finale to what seemed to me a comprehensive reply to the Captain. While my arrow missed the butt altogether – and not for the first time – I like to think that it missed with gusto.