Though she seldom has time to stay for an answer, the redoubtable Mrs D is never at a loss for a question and she has asked me what legacy our celebration of the tercentenary of that planter of nurseries, the ‘nonymous but nonetheless non-pareil, Capability Brown, should leave for future generations.
Her inquiry is in part answered in a discussion in which I but recently engaged with Mr Honey. The subject of our conversation had turned, it being the eve of All Saint’s, to witchcraft, to haunting and to ghosts. Though Mr H, as might be imagined, has never liked to discuss with Captain Ken his belief in the supernatural, he has been hearing voices, voices of the murmur-in-the-corridor kind, the kind that cling to the walls and stay too long upon the air after they are spoken. And what do they amount to, these mumblings and inquietudes? One simple question, that’s all: have we been wasting our time at the Tatler’s Waste-bin all year, sifting through the questions raised by our many and multifarious correspondents concerning the life and work of the great man?
For fear of precipitating a cascade of those earnest douches with which (in the name of what he calls common sense) the Captain is wont to souse the more gentle melancholy of Mr Honey, I took the latter to one side of the corridor and put it to him thus:
Think on Robert Peel, who obtained on Brown’s behalf the issue of Royal Mail stamps that commemorate his landscapes. Think on Alan Titchmarsh, whose appeal to Westminster Abbey has resulted in the promise of a fountain to commemorate the man in the courtyard itself.
Both those are formal acknowledgements of Brown’s place in the national firmament, and the fountain at Westminster is a badge of honour that can never be taken away.
Then we have the contributions to scholarship with published research on the Browns of Kent, Norfolk and Essex, and leaflets for his landscapes in Hertfordshire and Northumberland. We have the great books by Emma Rutland, Steffie Shields, Sarah Rutherford, Roger Turner, Jane Brown, Michael Symes, Tom Williamson and David Brown, and meanwhile the list of sites attributed to Brown is becoming more robust by the minute, with an imminent fifth edition even now in the hands of our editor John Phibbs (http://johnphibbs.uk/wp-content/uploads/2016/05/160506Attributions.pdf).
The editor has indeed been busy about the place this year, with three additional publications of his own – or at least two books, as well as this jaunt, the Brown Advisor – to his credit.
One might ask why three further essays in addition to the attributions list and John has given judgement (I summarise):
In Place-making, the art of Capability Brown he set out to test every received opinion about Brown – a patently academic endeavour, his aim however being not so much to be right (though he would insist that he is at least not wrong), as to create a platform from which to launch in all directions a fusillade of manifestoes which will proclaim the importance and sophistication of English design, though none may agree on the particulars.
In the Brown Advisor (http://thebrownadvisor.com/) which makes the second leg of his milking stool, he gives licence to that platform, to encourage speaking freely and generously in discussion: thought is not absolute; nothing of Brown’s life and work is finally known or settled; there is pleasure and reward to be had from flying speculative kites.
Capability Brown, designing the English landscape – the third component of the jig-saw – is designed to show that however intractable the challenge to understanding Brown, that does not diminish the beauty of his work and its immediate impact. This can be read much like the biography of any other artist with the same familiar and comforting chapter headings: ‘juvenilia’, ‘he finds his voice’, ‘public acclaim’ and ‘the late work’. We should not be ashamed to like something that we don’t entirely understand, nor should we be put off from enjoying it.
In short then, rather than establish any new theory of landscape, or upset anyone, one modest legacy for the tercentenary might be that we have given others the confidence to recognise and engage with the evidence of their senses and from that appreciation of their surroundings to precipitate changes in their attitudes to landscape. That change will involve showing to landscape the same consideration that we show to architecture and to nature conservation. In the end we may not be able to explain Brown, but we can have a go at seeing his work for what it is, and so presenting it to the future with its mystery and sophistication intact.
Regrettably our editor has rejected any idea that a book can be a legacy. A book he says is a coffin wherein many truths may lie buried. He asks instead that we respect and preserve the legacy that Brown himself left us and to which reference has been made in previous posts.
But let us end with the proper complements to the season – a very happy Christmas to one and all, and a great year now winding to its close.