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The Art of Capability Brown


John Phibbs


Swindon: Historic England, 2017

Hardcover. vii+374p. ISBN 978-1848023567. £60


Reviewed by Jacques Carré

Université Paris-Sorbonne






The tercentenary of Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown’s birth in 2016 has produced a number of path-breaking books that displace the familiar image of a landscape gardener whose art often used to be summed up as ‘lawning, clumping, belting’. John Phibbs’ idiosyncratic volume is certainly a far cry from the classic art-historical studies inaugurated in 1950 by Dorothy Stroud’s Capability Brown. It is both exciting by its command of the subject and irritating by its quirks and vagaries. A landscape architect and consultant in the management of historic sites, Phibbs has an extraordinarily detailed knowledge of each of the parks altered by Brown, to an extent that makes some of his analyses difficult to follow by the less-travelled reader. Although numerous and well-chosen photographs and occasional plans help him through, the book sometimes seems to address field-workers in garden archaeology rather than the general public.

On the other hand Phibbs has done a very thorough research work in local archives in order to unearth the slightest testimony on Brown’s activities and pronouncements. Yet unlike the prolix Humphry Repton, Brown hardly wrote anything about his art and his experience of landscaping, and entire swathes of his existence remain tantalisingly obscure (for example his years at Stowe looking after Bridgeman’s and Kent’s landscapes). As a consequence, Phibbs tends to make Brown’s contemporaries speak for him and formulate the effects he wanted to achieve. When he quotes Thomas Whately, who had a keen eye for Brown’s method, we can certainly find this illuminating. Yet the array of persons quoted is so vast and diverse that this can be misleading, especially when the persons quoted lived in different contexts, if not different countries. For example, on p.178 both the German Christian Hirschfeld and the French Encyclopédie are cited with their descriptions of the feelings induced by pleasure-grounds. This is to assume that Europeans of the 18th century responded to landscape gardens in the same way as the English. And this even jeopardises Phibbs’ theory that Brown wanted to make specifically English gardens for the enjoyment of English landowners.

The author builds up this theory in a leisurely and appropriately circuitous way. The first two parts (‘the five elements’ and ‘how landscapes worked’) are the longest and the most convincing. Thanks to his admirable command of the technical aspects of landscaping, Phibbs brings new light on the uses of grass, trees, water, architecture and ground by Brown. The famous attacks by Payne Knight and his ilk against his supposedly insipid parks (‘One dull, vapid, smooth and tranquil scene’) are parried with great effect. We learn that varied colour effects could be achieved with different types of lawn and pasture and that an impression of ‘tessellation’ could be given to the visitor. On the other hand Brown’s elimination of wild-looking trees and rejection of pollards and shreds suggest a move towards the standardization of the outlines of trees. The secrets of his treatment of water are revealed: far from being ‘the genius of the bare and bald’, he was a genius of draining, and all his employees must have been grateful for his elimination of marshy land, of dampness in buildings and for his successful creation of lakes. Brown’s attitude to buildings is linked with Whately’s famous distinction between ‘emblematic’ and ‘expressive’ landscape. Phibbs suggests that fewer and fewer buildings were erected in his parks, in a move away from emblem; towers and ruins were favoured later because of their connection with ancient baronial England which Brown was supposed to look back to. As for the treatment of ‘ground’, Phibbs explains that far from being obsessed by ‘moving of earth’, he skilfully made use of existing ridges and contours of land to create ‘natural terraces’ at minimal cost.

The second part of the book is a kind of economic and social history of ‘place-making’. Here again some received ideas are corrected and the picture refined. Far from encouraging his employees to spend their money uselessly, Brown acted almost as a kind of careful estate manager, considering hay, timber and cattle as economic assets, not just visual displays. He approved of home farms (in a proper location), eliminated rabbit warrens, while catering for the pleasures of the masters such as hunting, shooting, coursing, fishing, and, of course walking and riding. The organisation of the various walks, drives, approaches, tunnels, rides and ridings was skilfully contrived, with an eye on use as well as beauty. Phibbs insists that straight avenues inherited from the past and expressive of magnificence were not systematically eliminated by Brown, as is often believed, that belts of trees rarely shut out views (only 17% of belts were continuous, it appears) and that flower gardens could even be found in his compositions. In other words, there was no Brownian revolution in English parks, but an imaginative rationalisation of ancient practices and an adaptation to the specific needs of the landed élites in the age of physiocracy. On the other hand Phibbs’ picture of rural society tends to conform to the Georgian platitudes on rural virtue as opposed to urban vice, as if the extension of landscaped parks had just meant more work for the labouring poor and a dutiful acceptance of old hierarchies. Brown’s preservation of old cottages within parks is said to be expressive of his fascination for a harmonious past. Yet although Phibbs mentions John Barrell’s and Douglas Hay’s studies of the poor in his bibliography, he underplays the contemporary reality of conflicts and transgressions in his description of a Burkean arcadia.

The third part of the book (‘How landscape was designed and what it meant’) has an ambitious title and boldly submits original interpretations. Phibbs studiously avoids quoting traditional garden historians and remains very reticent on the influence of painting on Brown. Indeed he builds up his argument on the gardener’s alleged indifference to fashion. He details his interest and achievements in the management of elaborate park structures and sight-lines, asserts (not always convincingly) that he made use of several kinds of geometries, portraying him in fact as a kind of English Le Nôtre, formality apart. On Brown’s appeal to the imagination of the spectator, Phibbs makes much of what he calls ‘transumption’ —  in fact rediscovering Michel Foucault’s ‘heterotopia’, a term coined in 1967 to describe the imaginative conflation of several spaces and times. He usefully outlines an evolution in Brown’s style, not just from emblem to expression, but more convincingly from ferme ornée (Wotton) to ‘graded landscape’ (Croome), and to ‘relaxed naturalism’ (Highclere).

The rest of the book is disappointing. A very short fourth part of 7 pages on ‘The attack on Brown and his defence’ merely repeats things already said elsewhere. As for the enormous ‘glossary’ (45 pages) it is a sort of scrap-book of various topics dear to the author but often remotely connected with his main subject : ‘freemasonry’, ‘mathematics’ and even ‘meal-times’ are given more attention than ‘forests’ or ‘wilderness’! There is a rich bibliography (13 pages in small type) and a good index. Unfortunately, there is no list (or even map) of the parks altered by Brown or attributed to him; and there is no chronology of his commissions either. This lack of elementary information suggests that this is not the definitive study on ‘the art of Capability Brown’, but a rambling book for garden enthusiasts that adds much information on specific parks, suggests new and tentative approaches to their study and usefully challenges received ideas.


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