The Repton Gazette and Brown Advisor

300 Frequently Asked Questions about Capability Brown, and a further 200 about Humphry Repton

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1819: Is Repton any good?

The Professor, Vilém Mrštík: cloak, battered silk hat, consumptive, tin of small white pills (says he takes them for his cough), stick with a silver skull, book with soft leather covers under his arm in which (I looked) a collection of erotic art, limps.

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1818: Was Jane Humphry?

The only trick I learnt at prepper was from One-legged Lemon – don’t know why we called him that. His name was Mr Lemon.

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46: Rabbits?

Professor M gardens on the greensand ridge in Bedfordshire and tells me she is plagued by rabbits.

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301: Was Brown a land artist?

Mrs M writes from New York to ask whether the great gardener (but perhaps in this context he might be better described as an earth-mover) Capability Brown might be compared to the American land artists on the fourth quarter of the 20th century.

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294: Was Brown a romantic?

I am under attack, and the experience mortifies me! I slept, I nodded, I agree, and Mrs S of Grantham has rightly corrected me for suggesting that Capability Brown, helpmeet to happiness and harbinger of health, had been likened to Shakespeare in his own lifetime.

The comparison first comes into print in a passage from the journals published in 1828 by Prince Ludwig von Pückler-Muskau some 45 years after Brown’s death, and written after a visit to Blenheim.

‘One cannot help admiring the grandeur of Brown’s genius and conceptions, as one wanders through these grounds: he is the Shakespeare of gardening…. It is a grievous pity that [the possessor] spends this little [five thousand per year] in pulling to pieces Brown’s imposing gardens and modernizing them in a miserable taste, transforming the rich draperies which Brown had thrown around Nature into a harlequin jacket of little clumps and beds. A large portion of the old pleasure-ground is thus destroyed, as the old gardener, almost with tears in his eyes, remarked to us.’

I apologise – yet even at the point of withdrawing I pause. In a sense clearly it seems that I am in error, but first I ask Mrs S to consider how close Brown was in spirit to the natural genius of honest labour, to the people of the soil, the many Shakespeares that lie unknown in country graveyards, beloved and applauded by all the 18th century from Grey to Wordsworth.

Then, turning to Pückler-Muskau , he makes the comparison with Shakespeare more than once, very much as though it were common currency, yet the epithet is most unlikely to have been spread by Brown’s enemies and critics of the Picturesque era, nor was it spread by Repton. Nor would it have been Horace Walpole who, whatever his feeling for Brown, ‘blushed’ at David Garrick’s ‘insufferable nonsense about Shakespeare.’

In fact, much the most likely source, when you think about it, would have been that Garrick, who was proud to display himself ‘with the Bust of Shakespeare’ in Thomas Gainsborough’s painting and whose ‘Ode to Shakespeare’ proclaimed

‘The lov’d, rever’d, immortal name,

                Shakespeare! Shakespeare! Shakespeare!’

For Garrick, Shakespeare’s wildness and the liberties that he took with the Aristotelian unities were to be established in the bosom of respectability and theatre managers were to become the respectable guardians of a national literary treasure. For Garrick, Shakespeare was not just as a playwright of genius but a playwright of English genius in contrast to the cold French classicism of Racine or a Corneille. In fact a central character in Garrick’s Shakespeare Jubilee at Stratford was a fashionable Frenchified fop, played by the actor Tom King, who condemned both the Bard and the celebration before being bested in a public debate on Shakespeare’s virtues.

Who in short would have likened Brown to the Shakespeare of Gardening if not his good friend Garrick?

I have given time and space to the point, not only because Mrs S is a woman whose opinions deserve the greatest respect, but also because in the same post comes the description by Professor D-H of Brown as a neo-classicist and – yes of course – the houses, the idea that ancient Greece and Rome with ancient Greek and Roman manners and the perceived perfection of their culture could be transplanted to England – we can find this in Brown. Yet in the end he escaped neo-classicism did he not? Just as Shakespeare escaped from Julius Caesar and Rome to Cymbeline in Haverfordwest, did Brown not at the end celebrate the distinct and individual character of the English countryside with its hedges, its copses and little villages?

The Romantic Movement erupted in 1794 with the picturesque controversy and, within a few years, the Lyric Ballads of Coleridge and Wordsworth but is not their endorsement of common speech, their determination to love nature wherever they found her (springing as it did from Rousseau and the enlightenment) – is not that Brown, and should we not regard him on that account a fore-runner of Romance?

295: Where did he get his trees?

Mrs W of Newcastle-upon-Tyne has asked where the indigenous and ingenious Capability Brown, idol of Indians and Chiefs alike, got his trees and it’s a good question, especially when it comes from that splendid city Newcastle, strong indeed in the matter of coal-mines and ships, but less so when it comes to the commercial tree nurseries of the 18th century.

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293: What part did infinity play?

The Bar adopts at times the quietly assured purr of the contented cat who has seen the mouse and is merely waiting for a propitious moment to spring.

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300: What’s the point of a tercentenary?

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.

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299: What is Brown’s legacy?

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.

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298: Should landscapes be private?

I return to my recent communication (note 296) in response to a particular query from Miss P of Harlaxton who asks what grounds I have for supposing that the Dukes of Rutland drew their sense of themselves from the deep, and probably imagined, past.

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The Brown Advisor©2015

By John Phibbs