Much as moulds will effloresce upon a ground bedewed and pooled with rain, so a year made florid by the celebration of the tercentenary of that master of illusion, Capability Brown, will bring us thistles as well as roses.
I wonder (and not for the first time! – see note 281) if the critics of France complain that André Le Nôtre, the designer of Versailles should not have planted his trees in straight lines? I wonder if they complain about his repetitive use of statuary, his tricks with perspective? – yet I suspect they do not. Le Nôtre and his style are as firmly stamped into the fabric of French culture as Jeanne d’Arc and General de Gaulle. Whatever his faults, if any, may be, he has become a classic. There is no more point in criticising him than there is in objecting to a mountain.
So is it something in the English character that has denied this honour to Brown? Why is it that we continue to debate his originality, his genius, his influence and his legacy? How is it that half the country has never heard of him, and of the half that has, half again bitterly resents his achievement, seeks to denigrate his work and regards it as clever to do so.
We, regulars of the Tatler’s Waste-bin, do not regret the situation. On the contrary we marvel that it should be so, and that we deal with the work of a man still capable of giving offence, still vivid to the imagination. Yet this polarisation of opinion denies Brown the status he deserves, for he is a canonical and a classic. It is a point that the BA has made before (note 63).
I took this claim to my companions as we climbed to Ditchling Beacon and with that fellow-feeling that comes to those who work together to a single end, combined with the shortage of oxygen, we were able to agree that a classic is a touchstone – a thing irreducible – no matter how you may interpret it, you cannot carry on as though it wasn’t there.
Consider then the criteria by which we made this judgement:
However zany, however zoophobic you regard his work, Brown is a reference point – not only for all landscaping that has followed him, but also a means of seeing into the landscaping that preceded him with a critical eye. His work is classic in the way that the work of Beethoven is classic. From Beethoven all the subsequent music of the western canon derives, and the prism of his music allows us to peer into the hinterland of the past.
Brown is identified with the movement that he represented – that is, even his own time his name came to be identified with an entire style of landscape.
Brown represents his age – his work reflects the mores and culture of his England more perfectly than anyone else’s, man or woman and he is to be regarded as an individual. Those, pace the Norwich school, who would rather see him as first among many, representative of a class, and distinguished only by his memorable nickname would do well to look to the English style in Europe. If we leave out those (the Empress Catherine) who brought in English gardeners trained by Brown and whose gardens (at Petersburgh) are Brownian, we see that the English gardens of Germany and Central Europe are broadly in the style promoted by Sir William Chambers. Chambers lost out to Brown in England but his books remained very influential in Europe. Again if we look to the English gardens of the Île-de-France, we find a healthy but distinct tradition that borrows more from China than it does from England. In short if Brown had not existed and had not won the argument with Chambers a ‘natural’ English style of gardening might have thrived, but it would not have been very like anything Brown did. Ergo he, an individual, may be said to have created in England a school of landscape quite different from anything in Europe and one that would not have existed without him.
Enough I think to carry the point.