While normally I trust I may pride myself upon a sanguine and forgiving temperament, I must confess that a recent correspondence from Mr H of Twickenham, has left me with an unexpected difficulty that I cannot satisfactorily resolve. He protests that the Borough of Richmond is now open to all comers: that the success of the exhibition and display of the work of the wandering gardener Capability Brown at Orleans House, while welcome – indeed while more wonderful than in their warmest dreams the borough might have wished for – has set at nought all good sense. Now, as Mr H informs me, every tree in the borough is threatened ‘because it is not Brown’ – the very grass and shrubs are liable to removal ‘because they are not Brown’. Hardly a brick or paving stone will be sure of its continued safety unless it can prove its Brownian provenance. But Mr H has put the thing more plainly still: Whitton Hall itself, now known as Kneller Hall, as famous for Lord Islay’s fabulous early 18th century garden as it is for its sensitive reworking by Humphry Repton, Whitton Hall itself, deeply entrenched in its neighbourhood as time and custom have made it, Whitton Hall is now to be redeveloped for housing, and the old conduit filled in for a path – and why? – because it is not Brown. Has their success with Brown unhinged the fine officers of the borough? – and how should we, sympathetic Brownists, yet merely Spectators, come to the aid of Mr H? In short has our celebration of the tercentenary of Brown’s birth, stripped from his successor, Humphry Repton, something of his cachet?
May I suggest that in its beginnings every art form passes through three stages before its trajectory is shattered by dissension. So Greek tragedy emerges from the primaeval state with Aeschylus, who crunches words together like tectonic plates, whose characters are titanic, the thrust of his drama being focussed, single-minded and monolithic. Then comes Sophocles, who in Electra, Antigone, Oedipus Tyrannos, achieves a perfection of the form, whole, sculptural, breathing; and then Euripides whose work moves to the radical, the jagged, the unexpected, in order to feed the further curiosity of his audience – and by the time Euripides was done, plague and the Spartans had taken down the city.
You may prefer to consider Greek sculpture, which follows the same trajectory, from Phidias to Praxiteles to Lysippus, and thence to the fragmented developments of Hellenism.
Thus it is with the Roman gardens of the High Renaissance, thus with the 18th century English novel, while in English drama, Shakespeare encompassed the entire trajectory in a single short career.
So with English landscape we have Bridgeman, Brown and Repton, and after them the deluge of the picturesque controversy. We do not underrate Praxiteles if he follows Phidias, or Euripides if he follows Sophocles – these men are born at a certain time and their lives and work are a response to that time. Since he was born after Brown, it was necessary for Repton to remove himself from his master’s shadow.
I adopt the image of a trajectory not to denigrate any section of it – neither Caravaggio because he followed Raphael, nor Raphael because he followed Michelangelo. These men achieved mighty things, and by recognising the whole tradition within which they sit we add to their individual worth.
In short, Mr H, we applaud Repton and we fight for him because he was not Brown – perhaps that is the point on which you might correct the borough.