Many questions have been raised about the standing of the 18th century village. Was it Oliver Goldsmith’s Auburn and a heaven on earth, or was it squalid, unsanitary and absolutely to be avoided?

Mr D from Stafford has submitted the following extract, asking only to what it might refer and when the piece might have been written. Following the reception given my last post, in which I drew at length from the autobiography of Diana Cooper, I have no hesitation in tendering his query to my readers:

‘The village of Stockbrook gave the illusion that hundreds of English villages were giving that Christmas morning, the illusion that its name was Arcadia, that finality had been reached, and that the forces of civilisation could go no further. More suave than a Dutch village, incomparably neater and cleaner and more delicately finished than a French village, it presented, in the still, complacent atmosphere of long tradition, a picturesque medley of tiny architectures nearly every aspect of which was beautiful. And if seven people of different ages and sexes lived in a two-roomed cottage under a thatched roof hollowed by the weight of years, without drains and without water, and also without freedom, the beholder was yet bound to conclude that by some mysterious virtue their existence must be gracious, happy, and in fact ideal – especially on Christmas Day, though Christmas Day was also quarter-day – and that they would not on any account have it altered in the slightest degree. Who could believe that fathers of families drank away their children’s bread in the quaint taproom of that creeper-clad hostel – a public house fit to produce ecstasy in the heart of every American traveller – ‘The Live and Let Live’? … But after all the illusion of arcadia was not entirely an illusion. In this calm, rime-decked, Christmas-imbued village, with its motionless trees enchanted beneath a vast grey impenetrable cloud, a sort of relative finality had indeed been reached, – the end of an epoch that was awaiting dissolution.’

Well, the book is These Twain, the author Arnold Bennett, and the date of publication 1916. Conditions had not greatly changed I think over the previous 200 years, nor had the sense of some impending end to a dreamed of Golden Age, always illusory and always, like a rainbow, in retreat before one towards the safety of the past.

Mr D refers incidentally to the works of Boccaccio and Chaucer in the 14th century, in which the lives of ordinary people are celebrated. I might add to those poets, the practice of villegiatura, adopted by the architect Palladio in the 16th century, and Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s series ‘The Seasons’, painted  in 1565, for there has been a long-standing interest in recording the lives of unheroic ordinary people. Yet in all these works the artist takes a position. Brown, on the other hand, incorporated Hilton, Woolsthorpe and all those other villages wholesale into his landscapes – without judgement, without alteration, without any authorial comment. The Bar reminds me that this was also to be the position of Valentine Morris at Piercefield – the cliff-top walks and caves were designed to provide views of the ordinary countryside on the other side of the Wye: ‘Nature so  cultivated surrounded by nature so wild, compose a lovely landskip together’, as Thomas Whately put it. In fact the Bar also volunteered the suggestion that Piercefield was the first landscape to be described as ‘sublime’ (by the publisher Dodsley, only two years after Burke published his essay on the subject). Then – the Bar again, he has been irrepressible on the topic – there is William Cobbett in Surrey, a generation or so after Brown’s death:‘Those who travel on turnpike roads know nothing of England – From Hanscombe to Thursley almost the whole way is across fields or commons, or along narrow lanes. Here we see people without disguize or affectation. Against a great road things are made for show.’

– By great chance Mr Honey interrupted my lucubrations at that moment. It is his habit of a morning to walk from bridge to bridge along the canal, taking in, as he likes to say, the forwardness of his neighbours’ gardens. All sheds and cabbage patches are a charm to him. Leaning over my shoulder to see the matter at my table, he thought again of Brown himself: that letter of his to George Rice in which he wrote of Dinefwr that ‘Nature has been truly bountiful and Art has done no harm’,[i] and again his comment to Daniel Giles at Youngsbury ‘that Nature had do[ne] so much that little was wanting, but enlarging the River’.[ii]  “In both we see the realisation” – so Mr H put it – “that the countryside of England and Wales with all its mundane flaws is itself beautiful and having made that discovery, Brown had little else to do but rock back on his heels and pull up stumps. Such humility is a mark of true greatness.” Thus Mr Honey, who then slung his hat with some insouciance and a slight bow to the peg, and made his way to the Snug.

I am bound to take his point. I do not know when Brown worked at Youngsbury, though it is likely to have been before 1764, but Dinefwr is a late work, from a time in his career when it does seem that he was thinking such things of the natural beauty of England, unvarnished, unpainted and untouched by taste.

[i] Pakenham Letters, British Library.

[ii] Annotation by Brown on his plan (private collection).