Published  16/08/2011

The Omnipotent Magician: Lancelot

The Omnipotent Magician: Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown (1716-1783)

by Jane Brown
Chatto and Windus, London 2011


The cultural significance of Lancelot Brown, the Northumberland-born 18th-century landscape designer, has grown significantly over the past 20 years, in line with the surge of Enlightenment studies in Britain and America, as well as a new awareness of landscape at large, and also a revision of thinking about the relationship of buildings to “landform”. This new work by the prominent garden author Jane Brown is timely in providing new facts about this great English 18th-century landscape master. The American Thomas Jefferson, third President of the United States (1801–1809) visited England previously in 1786, not long following Brown’s death and was deeply impressed on touring some half-dozen Brown landscapes.

This was extremely significant, in that it helped to underpin Brown’s longer-term status. It recognised the survival of an Enlightenment culture in Britain, following on by a generation later the tracts of Edmund Burke (Inquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beauty, 1756) and of William Hogarth (The Analysis of Beauty, 1753). Such ideas had been at variance with the pursuit of the Picturesque. Both Jane Brown and her distinguished predecessor Dorothy Stroud (d1987), author of Capability Brown (1950) addressed the later 18th-century tendency of enthusiasts for Humphry Repton and the “Picturesque” movement to seek to affiliate Brown there. Jane Brown quotes Sir Geoffrey Jellicoe, (d1996) who conceded that “Repton humanised Brown’s conception of landscape” though “he compromised it as a work of art”. Brown’s large scale landscaping around rural mansions and palaces broke with such decorative approaches, and continued to recognise broader values linked to the spread of the Enlightenment in both Britain and Europe. And it was Jefferson who enthusiastically took it to America, and expanded his library at his Monticello fastness in due recognition of such universal landscape values, which he applied to the Capitol, Virginia and to the University of Virginia.

As with our contemporary debate as to which architects are late modern or postmodern (ie a variant of picturesque thinking), Lancelot Brown steered a careful course and avoided theoretical standpoints, reflecting always the wishes of his clients, or at least interpreting these, bearing special concern to economic viability and indeed longer term sustainability. So also does Jane Brown interpret Brown’s progress skilfully, in the light of the shifting political sands of the later 18th century, between Whig and Tory power groups. Her predecessor Dorothy Stroud had done the same. It is possible that Jane Brown has researched this background context even more forensically. Here Lancelot Brown never seemed to falter, as he both journeyed ceaselessly across England initiating and overseeing schemes (usually long term) and at the same time he maintained a presence at Court by virtue of his position as “Royal Master Gardener” at Hampton Court.

Repton had once claimed that Brown “didn’t draw”. To refute this, one has only for example to visit Kimberley Hall in Norfolk (barely covered by this book, but illustrated by Stroud) to step up to the “salone” and look down at Brown’s ample lake there. Then look to the wall on your left and so observe hanging there a closely detailed drawing by Brown of his plan for the lake. Today the Kimberley Lake shines reflecting all the characteristic cloud formations and light of the Norfolk sky: and indeed it is embellished by mature but natural planting surely as intended by Brown.

Jane Brown is to be congratulated for taking on a massive task with this biography, on seeking out new sources, and offering a new perspective. As the landscape designer and researcher John Phibbs rightly claimed at the Symposium “Landscape Transformed”, held at the Royal Academy in 1995, over 60 Brown landscapes were under threat at that time. What is now needed is a collective effort to map and preserve what can still be saved, from the golf course expansions, the tree clearance craze, and above all from the pall of ignorance.

Jane Brown’s book is an important step in this direction.

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