Mr Honey comes in spinning like a top – I have seldom seen such irritability in a man – and flings onto our table first one issue then another then another of The Spectator – a journal with which I feel myself to be closely associated. Indeed it is one in which I take a nigh-on paternal interest. Each of these issues has within it another attack on the landscapes of Capability Brown.
These attacks vary in their intensity but tend to come down to a single assault which I have been inclined to call the Strong Gambit. It was Sir Roy Strong who dedicated his book The Renaissance Garden in England to ‘the memory of all those gardens destroyed by Capability Brown and his successors’, and it is Strong who has continued the tradition of Brown’s picturesque traducers in claiming his landscapes to be bland and insipid, boring, repetitive and thin (see note 278).
Before I contend with these accusations, let me declare my readiness to extend a forgiving hand to these men (all are gentleman correspondents) for the boorish rejoinders to which their ignorance has exposed them. We should celebrate the trend of their argument. For is it not astonishing that Brown’s English style of gardening, which had upturned every rule established by the French, the Dutch and the Italians of what a garden should be and what it should look like, should in a single generation become so ubiquitous as to be accepted as the norm and have exception taken to it on that account?
Let me further add that the continuing controversy that surrounds his work is a signature of its originality and strength. Do French mud-slingers splatter Le Nôtre in this way? I think not. Brown is undoubtedly unique, his ‘uvre’* undying. Time and again I fear we misjudge our pronouncements on him because neither those who admire his work, nor those who don’t, can take in the scale of his achievement.
Turning back now to the Strong Gambit, the question one asks first is what kind of a boy will go willingly to the cane? Is it Brown? who (according to Strong) knowingly destroyed a great gardening tradition and replaced it with something bland and insipid, and if not Brown, then is it Strong himself who willingly makes an accusation that he is careless to substantiate?
I have to hand a letter from a Mr C of Broadstairs in which the Strong Gambit is given expression, and by way of reply I would ask him first to spend a month visiting the great gardens of Italy: d’Este, Lante and the other Roman villas. Then I would call on him to move to France, to Versailles, to Chantilly, to Vaux. Then having immersed himself in these two great gardening traditions of the 16th and 17th centuries, only then to come to England and to Brown, let us say to Burton Constable, Rise or Swynnerton, and to ask himself which of these places has the more radical setting: the Italian and French who pile on the artifice, as anyone might who was making a garden, whether it is patios, raised beds, a little cherub in reconstituted stone and some crazy paving; or Brown with his removal of all such stuff in search of some more direct attachment to the natural world. When compared directly with the gardens that came before them, his landscapes are about as bland and insipid as the French Revolution with the tumbrils in the streets and the King and Queen fetched in from Versailles.
Then let us dismiss the other leg of this attack, that Brown ‘destroyed’ the earlier gardens that he found. I dare say I repeat myself, but Mr C need go no further than Chilham to find a castle whose terraced gardens were retained by Brown. Then he should remember Brown’s refusal to change the formal gardens at Hampton Court though expected to do so by the King, ‘out of respect for my profession’, and his similar refusal to remove the gardens at Wrest lest it destroy the ‘mystery’. Then let Mr C, and indeed Strong, move on to Southill where Brown again retained the terraces with their beds of flowers, and thence to Wrotham and Blenheim and – but will it be enough to say that the gardens whose loss is so lamented by Strong and Mr C, were in the main lost already, or hopelessly compromised by neglect, before Brown arrived? Will it be enough to tell Strong and Mr C and all the other gentleman correspondents that they may take the book out of their trousers this time, but for the future they should stop being so silly?
As for the Spectator, I should not be surprised that it should print such a piece, even Jane Austen condemned the paper: ‘as containing matter and manner that would ‘disgust a young person of taste: the substance of its papers so often consisting in the statement of improbable circumstances, unnatural characters, and topics of conversation, which no longer concern any one living; and their language, too, frequently so coarse as to give no very favourable idea of the age that could endure it.’
* This charming spelling I have borrowed from Mrs W of Nether Lamport. She has cast off the toils of the alphabet with her suspenders and thus has freed herself for the collection and cultivation of mis-hearings and would-be puns.