In a short but heartening exchange, Mr Honey, flapping himself around his calves, as is his wont, with a horse-whip declared that ‘Nothing, but nothing beats a picture’. He was fresh in from Yorkshire and very full of himself, but I shall summarise his fuller account.
Take that anonymous engraving of Aske. Taylor published it in 1792. It shows two women, properly dressed, walking on the grass while the gardeners heave at a roller that they are pulling round the gravel path. These pictures have a text: grass is comfortable and suited to polite society, gravel is hard and hard work too – what could be clearer?
Move next to Paul Sandby’s 1768 picture of a white friar praying in the ruins of Roche Abbey. Now what do we learn from him? – What is he praying for – vengeance on those who slighted the building in the first place? Or has he established himself as a hermit at the sacred site, to pray for mankind, which faces the terrible doom that was meted out to Roche Abbey? Aren’t these just the questions one might ask of Claude Lorrain’s shepherds, tending their flocks amongst the ruins of what might be ancient Rome? How, facing that painting, can you fail to ask what place ruins played in the 18th century imagination?
Next to that Mr H would place a picture of the same place in 1780 by Samuel Hieronymus Grimm. It shows the foundations of all the columns of the abbey that the magnificent Capability Brown carefully revealed to expose the full scale of the ruin, while leaving in place the adventitious trees that threatened to sink it in the green depths of their branches.
Supposing, but this is almost too much to ask, you were to place with these Hornby Castle as Miller saw it in 1847. Here is the grown out alder coppice – alder! – the very genus that they say Brown planted as a barrier between the stock and the water, so as to control the lake edge, and here the white park cattle steered are steered towards their water hole between the alder and a rickety post and rail fence. It shows you, in a single image, how the animals were managed there.
But all these pictures are currently on view at the Mercer Gallery in Harrogate, and along with them – it’s hard to credit – here too are the pellucid beauties of George Barrett’s Burton Constable (1777), and of Michael Angelo Rooker’s Temple Newsam (c1770), of George Cuit’s Aske Hall (c1770) and of Turner’s Harewood (1798). Introduce yourself and be initiated, this is the imagery that Brown inspired. Gaze on these pictures, gaze on these, take your time and ask if there is a better or quicker way to come to an understanding of the ambition and vision of the 18th century.
If you do not go you will never forgive yourself. The place is a feast!