6th April 2016
Words by Andrew Taylor
Illustrations by Bridgeman Art
This year, they tell us, is the Year of the English Garden, which might seem odd to anyone who really loves gardens. Every year, they will say, is the year of the garden — and if it isn’t, you’ll soon have no more than a patch of nettles, bindweed and a few broken paving stones to look at.
But this year is also the 300th anniversary of the birth of Capability Brown, the landscape architect who created more than 170 great parks and gardens, designing the settings for many of the stateliest homes in England. Not for him the little cottage garden packed with flowers and buzzing with bumble bees, with a neat little vegetable plot behind — he was a man for the great undulating sweep of grassland, scattered with carefully positioned copses of trees and leading down to the calm waters of painstakingly created lakes.
Overlooking them would generally be large mansions or palaces such as Chatsworth House in Derbyshire, Highclere Castle in Berkshire, Syon House on the Thames in west London, or Oxfordshire’s Blenheim Palace. Brown would take not just a patch of ground, but an entire landscape and mould it into an impressive new creation to reflect the grandeur of its aristocratic owner. These were gardens at the forefront of 18th-century fashion, built unashamedly for the rich and powerful.
His vision and ambition were legendary. At Blenheim, the ancestral home of the Dukes of Marlborough, for instance, he had the River Glyme dammed to create a huge stretch of water featuring a series of cascades where the water crashed down over rocks into and out of the lake. Some 50 years before, the palace’s original architect, John Vanbrugh, had designed a massive triumphal bridge to cross the existing stream, including more than 30 rooms in its ostentatious superstructure. It was, he boasted, “the finest bridge in Europe”. Brown, determined that nothing should detract from the beauty of his landscape, narrowed his lake to pass under the stone monstrosity — and simply flooded the lower storeys, effectively reducing the bridge’s overbearing dimensions and incorporating it into the landscape.
Today, instead of dominating the scene, the bridge is part of one of the favourite vistas of the whole 2,000-acre park, leading the eye of an approaching visitor towards the baroque grandeur of the palace itself.
In the centuries since Brown completed his work at Blenheim, other people have created different features — the French designer Achille Duchêne, for instance, incorporated formal water terraces and an ornate Italian Garden with walkways and flowerbeds in the 1920s, and in June 2015, the Churchill Memorial Garden, designed by the British landscape architect Kim Wilkie, was opened by the Duchess of Cornwall. But the memories that everyone takes away from Blenheim’s magnificent park — the apparently limitless sweep of the lawns, the drive across the lake and up to the house, the trees and the peaceful surface of the lake — are all the creation of Capability Brown.
It’s hard to exaggerate Brown’s influence on English garden design and landscape architecture, both in his own day and over the centuries since. He was once offered £1,000 — a huge sum of money in those days — to design a garden in Ireland, but he refused. He hadn’t yet completed England, he explained.
At Chatsworth House in the Derbyshire Dales, the ancestral home of the Dukes of Devonshire, Brown incorporated features from the original Tudor garden into a design that also transformed nearly 100 acres of working farmland into sweeping parkland, in which clumps of trees were cunningly arranged to look as though they had grown there naturally.
By creating a concealed ditch or ha-ha, he managed to give the impression that the surrounding woodland merged with the grass that covered the whole area in front of the 16th-century house. Several of the original fountains and other water features were filled in, but the famous cascade, which has water tumbling down 24 stone-cut steps, was preserved. By the time the work was done — including the importation of several species of trees from America — the fourth Duke of Devonshire had spent around £4,000, or more than £7 million in today’s money.
Once again, the landscape that Capability Brown left behind is recognisably the same as the one that a modern visitor to Chatsworth will find. No one has managed to improve upon his work.
That’s partly because Brown’s vision of a tamed natural beauty — the vision of Blenheim, Chatsworth and all the other gardens and parks that he created — has become the ideal for generations of garden-lovers.
While the French may marvel at the formal symmetry of a garden like that of Versailles, with its carefully tended parterres, its solemn perspectives of straight lines and its delicately manicured lawns, the English taste is for rolling grassy swards, irregular lakes and streams, and trees scattered across the landscape. It’s the natural world dressed up and put on its best behaviour.
That is exactly what Capability Brown did at Longleat House — best known perhaps today for its lions and extensive safari park. He was commissioned by the first Marquess of Bath to redesign a series of formal gardens, canals, fountains and flowerbeds that had been installed at the magnificent 200-year-old house some 50 years earlier. This Brown did largely by rooting them up and filling them in, replacing them with the open vistas of a landscaped park, with well-drained lawns stretching away to the front of the house, giving dramatic views from the curling entrance road and from the many gravel drives that he designed to show off both the house and the landscape to their best advantage.
Wooded hills overlook the park and a slow-moving, serpentine river meanders quietly through it, fed by a series of apparently natural water courses. To the west of the house, Brown planted an arboretum, stocked with “trees and shrubs of curious sorts”. The aim, as in all Brown’s landscapes, was to create a calm and relaxing landscape that would offer impressive and unexpected views and also surprise a wanderer with specific features, whether buildings, statues, or particular trees. The gardens of Longleat are, again, an example of nature tamed and idealised, paying tribute to the fabulously wealthy landowner whose vision Brown had been paid to bring to life.
Brown was fond of telling potential clients that their estates had great “capability” for improvement — which led to the nickname by which he is universally known. Born Lancelot Brown in Northumberland in 1716, he served an apprenticeship to the head gardener on the estate of Sir William Loraine. Later, he worked at Stowe, Buckinghamshire, under William Kent, one of the new breed of landscape gardeners who were moving away from the studied formality of the previous 150 years. It was after his appointment there as head gardener in 1742 that his reputation began to spread.
Once an estate had been thoroughly surveyed, he would study the map to see how the lie of the land could be adjusted to provide the different views he sought — there would be the glimpse of a castle, a palace or an imposing house though the trees, the sudden revelation of a feature such as a lake or a stream, an unexpected turn in a walkway that would reveal the entire panorama.
There would be no bare hilltops — the horizon would always be created by trees planted around the estate. Some would be seedlings, others established trees, moved into place on a heavy wooden cart. And Brown was careful wherever he could to make his work self-sustaining, with sheep, cattle and deer able to graze quietly in his landscape.
By the time he died at the age of 66, Brown was rich and honoured. Some 20 years before his death, he had been appointed Master Gardener to King George III at Hampton Court Palace, although by then he no longer considered himself a mere gardener, still less a landscape architect — a term that was first used in the early 20th century. Brown’s preferred description of his role was as “place-maker”, stressing the way that he moulded the natural features of the estates on which he worked into entirely new landscapes — creating fresh “places”.
These did not always feature his well-known rolling grassland — in Savernake Forest in Wiltshire — then 40,000 acres in size — Lord Thomas Bruce, Earl of Ailesbury, commissioned Brown to plant great avenues of beech trees, including the Grand Avenue, which ran dead straight for nearly four miles, straight through the heart of the forest.
For Nikolaus Pevsner, author of the 46-volume go-to guides to British architecture, Brown’s landscapes are simply “England’s greatest contribution to the visual arts”. The American writer Bill Bryson summed up his achievement: “Brown created landscapes that were in a sense ‘more English’ than the countryside they replaced, and did it on a scale so sweeping and radical that it takes some effort now to imagine just how novel it was.”
And yet Capability Brown doesn’t get quite the last word on gardening in England. This year, remember, is the Year of the English Garden as well as the anniversary of Brown’s birth — and there is a tradition of English gardening that is very different from the controlled order and confidently proclaimed prosperity that marks the style to which Bryson refers. Capability Brown’s gardens are places that English people come to visit, to stroll around and to admire, not places to which they give their hearts and devote their lives.
Think, for example, of the cottage gardens that adorn the lids of thousands of boxes of chocolates and biscuits, pressing up against the walls of pretty thatched cottages like the sea lapping on a beach. Or, to
be more precise, think of the garden of Anne Hathaway’s cottage in Stratford-upon-Avon — the cottage where the woman who was to become William Shakespeare’s wife grew up and where he courted her and persuaded her to marry him.
The beds are thronged with old English flowering plants such as pinks, violets, wallflowers and lupins, growing cheek by jowl with herbs and vegetables, with not a square inch of soil wasted — and not a lawn, not a blade of grass, to be seen. When the poet Rudyard Kipling wrote about the English garden in “The Glory of the Garden”, he described:
Our England is a garden that is full of stately views,
Of borders, beds and shrubberies and lawns and avenues,
With statues on the terraces and peacocks strutting by…
But in the same poem he writes about “better men than we” who:
go out and start their working lives
At grubbing weeds from gravel paths with broken dinner knives.
It’s essentially a working garden, the sort of place that was created with love, dedication and many years of hard work, not by a wealthy Duke spending thousands of pounds to create a landscape that will impress his peers and that ordinary people can gape at in silent admiration.
The two traditions exist side by side — and maybe that is the true secret of the English garden.