Recently returned from his tour to the eastern states, Captain Ken has reported his astonishment that Americans could describe the architecture and layout of New York as beautiful, and his further astonishment at the praise they heaped on the scenery along the train line from New York to Philadelphia.
The first he regarded as pencil boxes set on end in a grid of Manhattan streets that was quite impossible to navigate – at least he found it impossible to predict without walking a couple of blocks whether he was travelling north or south, east or west, because everything looked so much the same. As for the train line, all he saw from it was a series of down-at-heel towns and factories interspersed with what he took to be native woodland.
I wondered what he would think of northern France, where the roads are straight and lined with trees, poplars or planes, and I sought to have him conclude from these two examples that the countryside we instinctively find beautiful is that with which we are most familiar and so have learnt to associate with beauty. My argument proceeded thus: whether the straight tree-lined roads of northern France preceded the straight tree-lined allées of Versailles is immaterial, the fact is that the same idea is to be found in the countryside and the gardens of France and is regarded by the French as beautiful.
So Capability Brown in his mature master-pieces has made the mundane matter, seeing the ordinary English countryside as beautiful, he has embraced it, incorporating it unaltered within his designs. The final clincher to my exegesis, which I must admit I accompanied with some wagging of the finger, is to point out that a recognisably Brownian design is very rarely to be found in Europe – yes we find the earlier English style with a multiplicity of follies and wiggly walks, but nothing close to Brown. So I conclude that his manner cannot be replicated outside England because there is no countryside quite like English countryside, with its deep lanes and untidy patchwork of fields and villages, and because though his principle that one should attend to the genius loci has indeed travelled, the loose and open style of Brown’s maturity is inalienably rooted in England. Why not go still further? The straight line of the French road may or may not indicate control over Nature, but it certainly suggests the autocratic power of one human over another, that a road can be cut so straight without respect to ownership, while for Brown and the more consensual politics of liberal England, a road might well bend this way or that to avoid crossing more property boundaries than necessary.
Brown’s legacy is to give us our own countryside in our own language, and it is fitting that this should also be the legacy of our tercentenary. Had I had my wits about me then I might have deployed this argument in the earlier communication (note 288) in which I address this subject.
Captain Ken however did not take to the subtlety of my drift and went on instead about the jardin anglo-chinois and hadn’t I overlooked that, but I have no time for such niceties – the jardin anglo-chinois takes very little or nothing from the English style. In fact the English should be pleased to find such an acknowledgement for a style of gardening to which they have contributed so little. The jardin anglo-chinois is in origin a French interpretation of China mediated through the reports of Jesuit missionaries and barely seasoned by the self-confessed fantasies of Sir William Chambers.