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God's Garden

By: Nathaniel Peters
December 26, 2017

n Emma, Jane Austen describes Donwell Abbey’s lime-tree-lined avenue that ended with a view of the meadows, farm, woods, house, and river as “a sweet view—sweet to the eye and the mind…English verdure, English culture, English comfort, seen under a sun bright, without being oppressive.” That such a landscape should come to embody England is partly due to Lancelot “Capability” Brown (1716–1783). Beginning as a Northumberland apprentice and ending as the greatest landscape architect in English history, Brown worked on more than 250 sites covering 200 square miles. His clients included the king, six prime ministers, and half the House of Lords. He earned his nickname “Capability” when, at one of the first commissions, his patron asked his opinion of the estate. Brown replied, “Why, my Lord, the place has its capabilities.”

Few Americans give much thought to English gardening. But to historian and conservation consultant Sarah Rutherford, “the English Landscape Garden is arguably the greatest contribution Britain has made to the visual arts worldwide.” As that art’s greatest practitioner, Brown deserves to be reinstated “at the heart of the Pantheon of British genius.” John Phibbs, a garden historian, and Steffie Shields, a photographer and lecturer, agree. All three published books to mark Brown’s 2016 tricentennary. For them, Brown was more than just a brilliant artist; his art captured the English spirit in landscape and helped form the sense of “Englishness” we still have.

Brown’s patrons were primarily Whig aristocrats and businessmen who associated the English landscape garden with the values they admired: patriotism, freedom, and prosperous meritocracy. They saw, Rutherford says, Brown’s “serpentine lines and supposedly unfettered landscape as a reaction against the rigid formality of the great European gardens associated with Absolute Monarchy and Papism.” Despite his patrons’ anti-formalist attitudes, Brown redefined England and Englishness in line with a formal, medieval ideal—Medieval England as imagined by the Georgians. Like Horace Walpole and his contemporaries, Phibbs writes, Brown reached into the past to define Englishness as “the hitherto despised gothic, of organic growth, as Burke might have described it, that set itself up as anti-intellectual and irrational, in opposition to the conspicuously rational gardens and attitudes of the French…” Brown’s rolling parkland expanses were representations of “an aboriginal Englishness.” He persuaded his clients “that they could make economic working units which could also be judged as if they were classically conceived paintings, with a beauty that was true to the native character of England.”

Interest in classical paintings was cultivated on the continental Grand Tour that aristocratic British men took as their education’s culmination. Traveling through France and Italy, they soaked up the continent’s art and culture, cultivating nostalgia for an idealized past. They returned home with a taste for ruined buildings and Lorrain and Poussin’s Arcadian landscape paintings, which they hung on their walls to complement the pastoral surroundings outside. Brown designed his grounds so that they could be enjoyed from different angles inside the house. As Alexander Pope noted, “All gardening is landscape painting. Just like a landscape hung up.”

In Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia, Hannah Jarvis observes, “English landscape was invented by gardeners imitating foreign painters who were evoking classical authors. The whole thing was brought home in the luggage from the Grand Tour. Here, look—Capability Brown doing Claude, who was doing Virgil. Arcadia!” Jarvis pines for the Enlightenment in landscape form: “the topiary, pools and terraces, fountains,…the whole sublime geometry” of reason shaping nature that climaxed in André Le Nôtre’s spectacular gardens at Versailles. In contrast, Brown undulated the straight: parterres, avenues, and canals became sweeping parkland, sinuous paths, and curving lakes. The goal was not to mark nature with human reason, but to bring out its natural capabilities such that it bore no obvious marks of human interference.

Brown did not think of himself as a philosopher, but as a craftsman whose art operated according to clear principles—the word landscape comes from the Dutch landskip, meaning “land craftsmanship.” He was perhaps the first to realize the art of reading a landscape and interpreting a view. Brown described his style to writer Hannah More in grammatical terms: “Now there,” he said, pointing his finger, “I make a comma, and there,” at another spot, “where a more decided turn is proper, I make a colon; at another part, where an interruption is desirable to break the view, a parenthesis; now a full stop, and then I begin another subject.” Brown’s commas and parentheses were trees and hills, walls and lakes. His trademarks were the Cedar of Lebanon, with its striking, uneven branches, and the “ha-ha,” a sunken wall that could hide a road or demarcate a boundary without breaking the view. Curved borders and ha-has hid beginnings and endings, deceiving the viewer into seeing a limitless park or lake. Brown could take a marsh or a trickling stream and engineer a seemingly natural lake that ended surreptitiously behind a bridge or over a cataract. His magnum opus was Blenheim Palace and its 2,500 acres, the seat of the Dukes of Marlborough. Upon seeing its completed gardens for the first time, the king remarked, “We have nothing equal to this.”

Since Brown’s goal was to enhance the land’s natural capabilities, his mark is not always obvious. At Milton Abbey, for example, Brown sought to return the property to its monastic roots by removing the old town of Middleton and replaced it with Milton Abbas, a new village in a wooded valley out of the main house’s sight. Brown made the ancient church, rather than neoclassical temples or obelisks, an important architectural fixture. He surrounded it with fields, creating a modern farm in a monastic style. The result was a typical Brownian fusion: modern agriculture kept the land as if it were still managed by monks. It was a work of art, nostalgia, and practicality.

Romantic skeptics saw in Brown’s designs pallid imitations of nature. Sir Walter Scott berated the work of the “Capability villain” as bearing “no more resemblance to that nature which we desire to see imitated, than the rouge of an antiquated coquette, bearing all the marks of a sedulous toilette, bear to the artless blush of a cottage girl.” To his skeptics, Brown’s estates represent triumphant bourgeois luxury. Before his cultivation, the English landscape had been an open field patchwork of small family-worked strips and commons in which villagers owned rights. The Parliamentary Inclosure Acts converted these into large private parcels, which could now be laid out as single parks. Common land became monuments to wealth and power. As was the case at Milton Abbas, sometimes whole villages would be uprooted to improve the landowner’s view.

These criticisms have merit. Brown’s landscapes can be plain and boring, and they cost a fortune. But moving a village tended to give its inhabitants improved buildings. And while the rich owned Brown’s creations, the touring public also enjoyed their beauty. Without his influence, America would never have known the parks of Frederick Law Olmsted or the art of J.M.W. Turner and the English landscape painters.

Brown’s landscapes express the human longing for home, the hunger for union with God transposed into an earthly register. Brown’s view of nature is a deeply biblical one in which human beings have dominion over the land, bringing out the best of its potential without shoehorning it too severely into conceptual strictures. His motto— Nunquam minus solus quam cum solus, “never less alone than when alone”—hints about the character of a man who contemplates nature, and God in nature.

Geoffrey of Monmouth, writing in the twelfth century, called “Britain, the best of islands…[it] provides in unfailing plenty everything that is suited to the use of human beings.” Brown conveyed through his gardens the English sense that their home was a foretaste of the peaceable kingdom.