At this stage in our tercentennial celebrations for that roly-poly, roistering rooster and riding man, Capability Brown, I have heard cries and sighs of satiation from men and from women – there is too much juice I hear, too much pleasure, they are browned off with Brown. Yet by way of stimulating contrast, the post brought to my breakfast table this morning a communication from Mr M of Suffolk which has in it more of pique than ennui. My good friend Mr M is a natural creature of the woods and hills, a Dryad or Oryad, fine featured and of elfin descent and – but I will spare you the volume of his assault and rephrase for you only its silver bullets.
- He states that Brownian landscapes with their artificial lakes and vast lawns have nothing to do with real rural England.
- He argues that these artificial landscapes have created a myth of England, a pseudo-history that has corroded our understanding of nature and of the millennia of landscape-making that came before him, and offers, to boot, a dangerous model for the future in that these landscapes are evidently anthropocentric, exclusive and entirely controlled by man.
- He concludes that Brown’s designs are meaningless; they are decorative ornaments to gratify the rich.
At such a barrage the Brown-ites will fear for their roof-tiles, and they come to the Brown Advisor for reassurance. Here then is a batting back of each of these three cannon-balls:
- We cannot state that one part of England is more real than another, or that the work of a single mind is less real than that of many minds. It is not a part of natural philosophy to say that Bradford is more real than Poundbury, or that the straight hedges of Parliamentary enclosure are less real than the serpentine hedgerows of the open field systems that Parliament replaced.
- We cannot argue that anthropocentrism is the province of Brown alone – the whole of England is an anthropocentred product. As it happens, his landscapes were far from exclusive. Here, amongst many examples is Tottenham Park, which even Brown’s critic John Claudius Loudon praised for being always open to local inhabitants ‘who drive, ride or make gypsy-parties at their leisure’ – that came from the excellent Steffie Sheilds Moving heaven and earth. By the by – as it happens, much of the best of ancient landscape is to be found in parkland.
- We cannot conclude that Brown’s designs were meaningless ornaments, when they were designed to be up-to-the-minute farms for the production of grass and manure. Next door to Tottenham is Bowood where in 1767 ‘the number of Work People employed there makes Bowood have no appearance of the Scarcity so alarmingly conspicuous in most parts of the Country & so severely felt by the poor’ – that came from Tom Williamson and David Brown’s equally excellent Lancelot Brown and the Capability Men. These landscapes were a source of employment to the otherwise destitute. They made farming efficient and kept people on the land. It is a harsh judge who rules that the countryside is made more real by the number of people that starve in it.
It is interesting to me to isolate those occasions where argument will have no effect and it is better to state one’s position and be silent. This, I suspect is one. Indeed I have only put down as much as I have to make the assurance that a response might be made to the salvoes of the dryad. Yet I must wonder who is fooling and who is the fool. Mr M claims that Brown is imposing an image of England upon the real England, but could it not equally be Mr M who is imposing his own image of Olde England upon the countryside – the image of an unchanging land, farmed by toothless cretins with impossible accents, leather skins, hands like shovels and a propensity for incest. Is there so much more reality in this past of Mr M? – at this point, Mr Honey having so far confused reality and unreality as to settle his glass on an unreal table and slop the real contents over his real trousers, we made our excuses and our colloquy came to a close.