A delayed train to Carlisle having given me an hour or two in hand at Newcastle, I resolved to indulge myself with Steffie Shields Moving Heaven and Earth Capability Brown’s gift of landscape. It is a book I have been saving for such a moment. Newcastle is the one station in England where one can undertake not to be disturbed. That is to say, Geordies seem a very polite people and they do talk, but being unable to translate their dialect, my ear is deaf to it. Steffie’s book on the other hand describes a process of increasing involvement. One person, with an eye for a photograph, patience, a capacity for research and an ability to express her thoughts, takes on single-handed the vast terra incognita of that great arbiter of taste, the landscape gardener, Capability Brown and begins for the first time to map his achievement. She has the ambition of youth, in another century she would have set out to cross the Congo in carpet slippers.
Let us run fingers through the yield of yarns that finely sprinkles her pages: that when he got to Stowe, young Brown bought a surveyor’s chain (it cost him three pounds and five shillings), his saying of Kiddington, perhaps his first work, ‘I will make it so agreeable that no one will want to look beyond it.’ She has accounts of Brown’s travels, of Egremont House, of road building, of his lesser known foremen, such as Mr Winkles at Tottenham and Mr Nutt at Burton Constable, of the infamous Dickers, of oxen puddling the lake at Ashburnham, and 63 brace of carp caught at Wimbledon, of Brown’s collaborations with Brindley and Smeaton, the engineers, and with Josiah Wedgwood, referred to in my last.
There are attributions, new to the Brown Advisor – a Mr Mot…, not Motteux I think, but I hardly know who else it might be – and to Kensington Gardens, as well as proof at last of Brown’s work at St James’ Park. There is a superb account of the first steps taken towards the landscaping of Brocklesby – planting the nursery. There is the rare discovery of correspondence between Brown and one of his foremen, in this case Jonathan Midgeley at Castle Ashby, and the sketch by Nattes of the shrubbery and trees around the church there. In fact Steffie has triumphed with churches as she has with kitchen gardens.
Here is Brown proposing to build a rustic cottage at the foot of the Victory column at Blenheim. There is the capturing of details by means of photographs, from the Cedar park at Blenheim to the stepped cascade at Alnwick.
The book has riches indeed, and never loses its sense of wonder, as of coming to a new country for the first time, and finding everything strange. It needs reading two times, and then a third.