garden tales from a Brit abroad
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.
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 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.’
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.’
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.’
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.’
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.