Posts Tagged ‘Capability Brown’

We are in Northumberland for a couple of weeks, escaping the worst heat of the Delhi summer. A few days ago we revisited the rather pompously titled The Alnwick Garden, a  site created by the Duchess of Northumberland in part of the grounds of the ancient Alnwick Castle.

It is a garden I try – and fail – to love. The Duchess took a brave decision to use contemporary designs and designers to make this new site, rather than creating something classical and safe. She argued at the outset in 2001 that “No gardens of this scale and ambition have been undertaken in Britain during this century. And no gardens will have quite such a magical effect on those who visit them.”  The Garden’s website now trumpets its “Must See” features, including the Poison Garden, the Tree House (apparently one of the world’s largest), the Serpent Garden with its hidden water features, and the Grand Cascade.

Grand Cascade

The garden is well – and expensively – done, much of the planting is lovely, and it is undoubtedly popular and increasingly well-known. Yet for me it has no sense of place or character. Instead it feels rather like a theme park, a collection of roller coaster garden experiences all stuck together in one big shiny venue, giving you lots of bangs for your buck, as they say, but no atmosphere or associations or quiet moments of reflection. It is a garden without a soul.

The rest of the castle grounds are utterly different. They are the characteristic distillation of the English countryside for which Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown is renowned. Created in the 1760s, the grounds are a fine example of his work, not perfectly preserved, but still a beautiful mix of trees, grass, water and English sky, setting off the castle building and providing a magnificent sense of permanence and serenity. The contrast with the gaudy business and sparkle of The Alnwick Garden just over the fence is delicious. The grounds offer a perfect spot to picnic, enjoy the fine views, and just to relax and ponder for a little while.

Brown Pastures

Yet, as far as I can see, the publicity for The Alnwick Garden makes no mention of the attractions of the castle grounds, despite them being assessed as of Grade I (exceptional) significance and having been designed by one of the most influential men ever to come from Northumberland (Brown was born and raised in nearby Kirkharle, and was no doubt much influenced by the lush, open countryside of his home county). When I asked at The Garden ticket booth whether my entrance fee allowed me to visit the Capability Brown landscape as well, I was met by a puzzled look, and had to explain what I meant – and then was wrongly told that it did not.

Maybe the contrast between the two garden styles is just too great to attract the same visitors. My nine-year-old daughter loves The Garden’s interactive water features, its dumper trucks and wobbly rope bridges. When I took her to the back window of the upscale gift shop, to peer at the Brownian landscape just visible behind the row of tills, she looked genuinely puzzled and said  to me: But, mum, it’s just grass and trees…

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Recent discussions on this blog about the merits or otherwise of historical restoration reminded me of an interview I conducted a couple of years ago with noted British designer Kim Wilkie. We discussed how Wilkie had done something more controversial than restore or reconstruct the past: he had installed a long-lost design that had never been executed historically. The fact that the design was by England’s greatest landscape designer, Capability Brown – and that the site was one of the most important country houses in England – only makes the story more fascinating.

Capability Brown’s 1782 plan for the grounds at Heveningham Hall, which lay unimplemented and forgotten for 200 years. Image used with permission from kimwilkie.com.

Applying eyeshadow is not a common analogy for the craft of landscape design. But it is a striking image used by landscape architect Kim Wilkie to explain the genius of Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown. Wilkie is well-placed to know: he is responsible for the implementation at Heveningham Hall in Suffolk of a Brown plan which had lain abandoned since 1782. Wilkie rejects the common description of the eighteenth century place-maker as an ‘improver’ of landscapes, and argues that he is best understood as someone who was ‘clarifying’ nature. Hence the eyeshadow analogy: English topography is often so gentle, argues Wilkie, that Brown made just enough changes to bring out the intrinsic nature of a site, but leaves us admiring the work of nature, rather than the efforts of the designer.

‘Brown’s real genius lay in being able to understand the way land is formed by water, probably more so than anyone I’ve encountered,’ he explains. ‘He had such a feeling for undulations, valleys, ridges, and how they all form together in such an English way. He was able to understand how to work with the underlying sense of geology and geography.’ This is why Wilkie believes that so many Brownian parks survive in such good shape today. In contrast, Brown’s successor Humphry Repton, although a great landscape portraitist, ‘didn’t have those underlying understandings – his parks have decayed much faster than Brown’s.’

Capability Brown at Heveningham Hall

Wilkie’s enthusiasm for Brown’s work is catching. So it seems inconceivable that one of Brown’s last, great plans, for a 200-hectare landscape park at Sir Gerard Vanneck’s country estate at Heveningham Hall, in rural Suffolk, was never fully implemented. Renowned scholar John Dixon Hunt has described the 1782 plans for Heveningham, which included a series of lakes over a mile in length along the valley floor, as a consummate example of how Brown rejected the contrived designs of his predecessors and instead wished to organise natural phenomena to create an enhanced version of nature.

It is not clear why only a small start was ever made on the proposals. According to Brown’s biographer Dorothy Stroud, his grand plans were met with criticism from neighbouring landowners. Conservation expert David Lambert has suggested more recently that the reason why the work quickly fell into abeyance may have been cost, flooding upstream, or perhaps just loss of momentum following Brown’s death the following year. In any event, when Gerard Vanneck, owner of Heveningham, died unmarried and childless in 1791, the whole estate then seems simply to have stopped developing. Wilkie calls it ‘an arrested moment.’

The house remained in the Vanneck family until 1970. Apart from a parterre added on the south side in the 1870s, no further work was done. In the first half of the twentieth century, declining family fortunes meant that parts of the estate were sold, and the house gradually fell into disrepair. It was further damaged by a 1947 fire. After a spell in public ownership, a failed attempt at restoration by a foreign businessman, and a second fire in 1984 (which gutted the east wing of the Hall), Heveningham was in a sad condition, its future uncertain.

Rediscovery of the Brown Plans

The grounds at Heveningham before Wilkie began work, from kimwilkie.com.

The estate was bought in 1994 by Jon Hunt, owner of the Foxtons property chain, who wished to turn it back into a private family home. Kim Wilkie was one of many landscape architects that Hunt interviewed about designs for the grounds, and admits to being at first somewhat wary of the new owner’s motives. ‘I was honest with him,’ he recalls now, with a smile. ‘I was rather suspicious of an estate agent buying a country house. I did not want to be used as a front for some development that I was unaware of.’ Undeterred, Hunt took Wilkie to see the estate, and persuaded him to take on the project.

Although the owner had already had plans drawn up for the lake in the grounds, nobody appreciated that Capability Brown had once been involved at Heveningham. Wilkie remembers: ‘It was only when we did the historical research, that we realised what we had.’ He praises Hunt for his immediate enthusiasm about Brown’s abandoned proposals.

I wondered whether he was surprised that this 200-year-old plan still seemed the most relevant and appropriate approach for the landscape. ‘No, not really,’ he replies. ‘We grew with it, and came to appreciate how subtle Brown’s work was. He had such a good eye, and a familiarity with geology and geography – and an understanding of construction. They were perfect, perfectly accurate plans.’

Gaining Approval

Wilkie did not seek easy options at Heveningham. As well as proposing the long-delayed implementation of Brown’s plans on one side, he recommended ripping out the Victorian parterre behind the house, and installing sweeping new grass terraces in its place. These were dramatic changes for the setting of a Grade I listed house.

He remembers that, when presented with his proposals to install the abandoned Brown plans, English Heritage at first was not sure how to react. ‘There was an initial intake of breath. It was difficult because it was not restoration, not reconstruction; it was philosophically new to them.’ Fortunately the preservation body did not demand the conservation of the existing landscape: Wilkie recalls appreciatively that ‘English Heritage had the courage to say, “Just because it’s old, it doesn’t mean it’s good.”’ They recognised that ‘Brown’s plan had a value of its own,’ and quickly came to view the proposals as ‘exciting.’

Wilkie’s sweeping terraces that replaced an unsuccessful Victorian parterre behind the house. Image used with permission from kimwilkie.com.

The removal of the parterre and its replacement with contemporary grass terraces, perhaps surprisingly, proved less challenging. Wilkie explains that ‘the area behind the house had always been unsuccessful.’ Even the young La Rochefoucauld brothers, whose detailed praise of the Hall in 1784 helped inform the restoration work at Heveningham, had described the then flower garden as being ‘as ugly as it is out of place.’ The subsequent Victorian parterre, according to Wilkie, made things worse, having been built badly and at a scale too small for the grand house. On this issue, he remembers, English Heritage was ‘fantastic,’ giving agreement for the first time for the demolition and replacement of a historic garden beside a Grade I listed property. He thinks it helped that his contemporary design of sweeping terraces ‘was not a pastiche, but a design working with the characteristics of the land. It was of our own time.’ Although he did not see this new design as a necessary counterpoint to the old, Wilkie remembers that ‘it brought a lot of pleasure to be implementing 200-year-old plans on one side of the house and a contemporary, new design on the other.’

Learning Lessons

It was perhaps a unique opportunity, to install a Brownian landscape for the first time, and Wilkie feels he has gained much from the experience. ‘I learnt really useful things: for instance, that a curve on a plan can look insignificant; I almost had the idea that it would need to be exaggerated. But the opposite was true: something you almost can’t read on the plan is very powerful on the ground. The gentle curves of Brown’s lake are much stronger in reality. Things like how light works.’ He pauses, reflecting. ‘It was a learning of subtlety.’ He seems almost embarrassed by the phrase, but it clearly captures well his immense admiration for Brown’s design.

I ask if Wilkie is comfortable with the fact that Heveningham is now routinely being described as ‘a Capability Brown landscape.’ He has, after all, previously worried that his work at Heveningham was ‘troubling’ historically, and has said that it could even be described as ‘fake Brown, in a way.’ He starts by accepting that what he installed ‘will inevitably have been different’ from what Brown would have done. Crucially, a farmhouse that the 1782 plans incorporated into the landscape has since been demolished. He never considered rebuilding the farmhouse, but tried instead to imagine how Brown would have dealt with the same situation. ‘So it’s not identical. But it is so close. The plans were so accurate – Brown had even sketched the profile of each tree, so you could tell the species. It doesn’t feel fake. It does feel like his plan.’ Perhaps most tellingly, Wilkie says that there is nothing he regrets about his work at Heveningham: ‘I would do it again exactly as I did.’

The Heveningham estate after the implementation of Brown’s abandoned design. Image used with permission from kimwilkie.com.

Wilkie’s work has arguably helped refresh our understanding of the genius of Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown, and appreciate anew how his subtle designs strive to clarify the land that contains them. At Heveningham, Brown’s composition of grassland, trees, water and gentle sky has – after two centuries in abeyance – finally been revealed as a masterful distillation of the English countryside.

A longer version of this interview was first published by Gardens and People

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I’m grateful to fellow blogger Garden History Girl for alerting me to a splendid new way of wasting hours on the internet, while claiming to be researching important trends in landscape history.

A couple of days ago Google launched their Ngram Viewer. It is an oddly-uninspiring name for a nifty gadget that lets you trace the appearance of particular words or phrases in books over time. Garden History Girl writes amusingly of the 18th century fad for shrubbery, and uses the Ngram to show how for a while the word shrubbery was actually more popular than plain old shrubs.

Playing around with the gadget this morning, I have traced the dramatic rise and slow fall of the usage of picturesque and sublime, concepts painfully fashionable of course in the late eighteenth century; confirmed that the term jardin à la francaise is a nineteenth-century construct which would have had no meaning for Le Nôtre and his contemporaries; and discovered that parc de la Villette is the most discussed of the three great new parks created in Paris in the late twentieth century.

Google Ngram result

picturesque, sublime, in English 1600-2008

It is quickly clear that the gadget has all sorts of shortcomings: it is case and accent sensitive, so Jardin des Tuileries for instance will not find references to jardin des Tuileries, nor will Pere Lachaise find mentions of Père Lachaise; any pre-1800 results are pretty suspect, given the frequent lack of publication dates, non-uniform spelling and poor printing quality of many early books; and there is no way of verifying context, so mentions of Dan Kiley could equally refer to the master American landscape designer or to his pop-psychologist namesake.

Unlike Google Maps, there is no organised way of disseminating the results, except apparently as a ‘tweet’, and many of the graphs already appearing on blogs and online newspapers are blurry and difficult to read. It is also all too easy to search for the obvious, as I did, and get unsurprising results.

But the Ngram is great fun, and endlessly addictive. Its real value will come when unexpected patterns lead to fresh understandings and new avenues for research.

Postscript: A quick scout round the internet shows that I am far from the only one playing with Google’s new text miner. It is generating a lot of pretty unthinking coverage: see for example the gleeful US headline ‘Pants up, trousers down’ (non-American anglophones will quickly spot an omission in the writer’s analysis of the results).

But thoughtful and erudite posts are also appearing. This one explains the technical shortcomings of the Ngram, and argues that the gadget needs perfecting before it will be of any use. While this accepts its imperfections and welcomes the Ngram as another tool that can help us explore the past.

I remain on the fence. Try something seemingly simple like plotting the popularity of landscape designers over time. You can show that in British English in the twentieth century, Le Nôtre appeared more than Frederick Law Olmsted, and that poor old unfashionable Capability Brown barely merited a mention:

Ngram viewer

‘Capability’ Brown, Frederick Law Olmstead, Andre Le Notre, in British English, 1900-2000

Or you can show the opposite, with Brown easily more popular than Olmsted, and Le Nôtre relegated to a distant third:

Google Ngram

Capability Brown, Frederick Law Olmsted, André Le Nôtre, in British English 1900-2000

If you look closely, you’ll see that the results are completely skewed by spelling variations. ‘Capability’ Brown yields no results at all in the first graph (the gadget doesn’t seem to like the quotation marks, even though they are commonly used). Without the quotation marks there are suddenly lots of results (but there is no obvious way to combine them with those for his real name Lancelot [sometimes Launcelot] Brown). Olmstead in the first graph is a surprisingly frequent misspelling of Olmsted, the correct spelling of which produced the second set of results. Trickier still in the English canon is André Le Nôtre, whose name most commonly seems to appear in English books without any accent marks (at least according to Google’s OCR), producing the results in the first graph. Add both diacritics and you get the second graph. Originally spelled Le Nostre, his name is still sometimes rendered that way, although none of those results show up here.

So it is almost impossible to trace any meaningful trend in the appearance of their names in books over time. Hmmm…

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