The Repton Gazette and Brown Advisor

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

Tag: Blenheim (Page 1 of 4)

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?

290: What went wrong?

Many have been the triumphs of Capability Brown’s tercentenary

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284: Are there no crumbs?

Hirsute and with her head in a bandage again, Mrs W of Staffordshire never looks her best after a fall, but her one wild eye is still a-roving, and thus she came to me seeking as it were a mix of bread-crumbs which she felt would liven up this dish of advisory notes and give them more kick as they came fresh from the oven.

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281: Was Brown asking for trouble?

Mr Honey comes in spinning like a top – I have seldom seen such irritability in a man – and flings onto our table first one issue then another then another of The Spectator – a journal with which I feel myself to be closely associated. Indeed it is one in which I take a nigh-on paternal interest.  Each of these issues has within it another attack on the landscapes of Capability Brown.

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285: What of Steffie Shields?

A delayed train to Carlisle having given me an hour or two in hand at Newcastle, I resolved to indulge myself with Steffie Shields Moving Heaven and Earth Capability Brown’s gift of landscape.

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253: How is it for you? (3) Land management

Forgive me if in this note I resume my happy task of setting out the progress of enlightened thought in pursuit of that snappy salesman, the gardener, Capability Brown, through a consideration of Dr Sarah Rutherford’s new book Capability Brown and his landscape gardens.

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204: Why not celebrate the human?

My good friends Captain Ken and Mr Honey profess themselves both keen fishermen, yet their ways of proceeding could not be more distinct. The Captain will cast his fly, chin-proudly forward, gazing across the water, immobile as a heron. Mr H will snooze until he spies a craft of women punting by, then he will thrash the water with his line, with much cursing and joshing, then will he heave mightily in the waters. Now that’s real fishing he will say, a-twirling of his fine moustache.

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245: Did Brown work at Wentworth Castle?

The spoil heap at Wentworth Castle

The spoil heap at Wentworth Castle

Days come in late March or in April, when Spring has not wholly disentangled herself from Winter, but there is a freshness to the air and it is better to be out than to be in. So I am advised by the good folk of Health and Safety , who have asked me to warn you that happiness can cause damage in confined spaces.

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222: Ionic or Iconic?


Kedleston Hall from Adam's Long Walk

Kedleston Hall from Adam’s Long Walk

I confess that I cannot resist pressure. As a rule therefore I will retire to my tower until the siege party has wearied of its efforts, but here is Mme de V, writing from France once again, and asking for still more detail on the essays of the noble Capability Brown in Ionic architecture.

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214: Did Brown really dislike deer?

In my last (note 213), I offered to my companions at the Tatler’s Waste-bin a list of all those landscapes of that fine man and lord-lieutenant of Huntingdon, Capability Brown, for which I had records of an active deer park.

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The Brown Advisor©2015

By John Phibbs