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garden tales from a Brit at home and abroad

The Shakespeare of gardening

The year 2016 will mark three hundred years since the birth of Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown, and plans are being put in place to celebrate this greatest of England’s landscape designers. Today I visited his birthplace, at Kirkharle. It was here in this small corner of Northumberland that Brown first learnt to appreciate and understand the countryside that was to inspire his work.

First signs at Kirkharle aren’t promising. The small house where Brown was born is now a car park. The grand Hall, for which he designed the grounds, was largely demolished in the nineteenth century, leaving just a wing that became a farmhouse. Since then, a major road has sliced the small estate in two. In any event, Brown’s  design was never installed.

And yet Kirkharle proved a delightful half-day visit. The old agricultural barns and byres that surrounded the farmhouse have been saved from dereliction and turned into the Kirkharle Courtyard, a collection of small workshops, galleries and a nice little café all branded under the Capability Brown name, and accompanied by a small but informative exhibition about Brown’s work at Kirkharle and elsewhere. Kirkharle courtyard 1 Kirkharle courtyard 4 Kirkharle courtyard 3 Kirkharle courtyard 2Most interestingly for me, the unrealised Brown plan for the grounds at Kirkharle has now been installed. Starting in 2010, his distinctive proposals for a serpentine lake, groups of broadleaf trees and conifers, undulating turf and carefully composed vistas were finally laid out in the fields behind the courtyard. Unlike the painstaking installation of another unrealised Brown plan at Heveningham Hall, the work at Kirkharle is more a modern interpretation of his intentions than a close rendering of the original plan. But it seemed to me a commendable exercise to take a fairly slight Brown project and consider how the great place-maker might have laid out the grounds if he were alive today. The site is developing well and a circular walk encourages its exploration, with helpful – if woefully ungrammatical – signs.

Kirkharle lake 1 Kirkharle lake 3 Kirkharle lake 2

Of course such a project does not come cheap, and a mass of sponsors and supporters has been necessary to fund everything from the restoration of the barns and the exhibition to the newly laid-out lake. I wish the Kirkharle Lake and Courtyard project well. The tercentenary of Brown’s birth in three years is an important opportunity to revaluate Brown’s contribution to British, and indeed international, landscape history; this thriving little venture at his birthplace in Kirkharle can only help the celebrations.

6 comments on “The Shakespeare of gardening

  1. diversifolius
    July 3, 2013

    You found the right title for it! I remember when I first heard of ‘Capability’ Brown – taking a course in Landscape Architecture, took me a while to understand why he was called ‘capability’ Brown – but this was in another life, in a far away Eastern European country. But afterwards I developed a profound admiration for him. It’s very admirable that they put all this effort for the coming celebration.

    • landscapelover
      July 4, 2013

      Thanks for the comment. The description of Brown as the ‘Shakespeare of gardening’ comes from the 19th century German writer and gardener Prince Hermann von Pückler-Muskau. I think he was trying to capture the subtlety of Brown’s work and the myriad associations and emotions it stirs.

      I agree with you about the coming tercentenary; Brown has become so unfashionable, it will be good to see his work reconsidered and celebrated anew.

  2. Of Gardens
    July 11, 2013

    Building Brown’s original plan for Kirkharle is an exemplary way to commemorate his tercentenary. Would you consider this a memorial garden?

    • landscapelover
      July 13, 2013

      Interesting question – it’s not being marketed in that sense, but I guess the common definition of a memorial (something established to remind people of a person or event) does apply.

  3. It is really important to make an effort to review the work of great personalities that somehow configured the history of landscaping. This post is a fantastic inspiration.

  4. janjohnsen
    July 14, 2013

    fabulous! Thank You!

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This entry was posted on July 2, 2013 by in Gardens, History, UK and tagged , .

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