George Plumptre considers the array of new books brought out this year to celebrate the tercentenary of the great landscape gardener.
In an age when we like to label the stars of our history, Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown has become known as ‘England’s greatest gardener’. It’s no surprise then that the 300th anniversary of his birth should produce a flurry of books that catalogue his achievements.
They are a varied bunch and provide readers with an enjoyable selection to choose from. But they also confirm the inherent challenges of writing about Brown; the quantity of places where he worked set against the paucity of personal information.
This combination inevitably leads to a familiar progression from one commission to another, but with no really new material or human depth to the story, so three centuries on, although Brown’s reputation is greatly enhanced, he remains tantalisingly elusive as a person, illuminated only by brief flashes of insight.
The world of Brown is occupied by a number of dedicated scholars, many of whom have contributed to the tercentenary. Dr Sarah Rutherford is the author of the ‘official’ 300th-anniversary book, Capability Brown and his Landscape Gardens (National Trust, £20), which provides an engaging summary of his career.
Steffie Shields has produced an impressive tome, Moving Heaven and Earth: Capability Brown’s Gift of Landscape (Unicorn, £30), in which she chronicles Brown’s varied commissions confidently, giving due prominence to his engineering skills and making the point that his landscapes need appreciating now because his original trees are rare and need protecting within their contemporary settings.
Two other books by Brown experts will appear in the coming months. The first is Lancelot Brown and the Capability Men: Landscape Revolution in Eighteenth-century England by David Brown and Tom Williamson (Reaktion Books, £30), which, despite its somewhat contrived title, presents a wealth of material about the evolution of the landscape garden through the 18th century, looking at Brown as one of the cast of protagonists.
The second is by John Phibbs, perhaps the pre-eminent Brown guru, who will publish in September Capability Brown: Designing English Landscapes and Gardens (Rizzoli, £45), which could be the most heavyweight contestant of the year.
Quite different to all these overviews, which aim to encapsulate the whole Brown oeuvre, is a selection each of which has a specific focus. I was intrigued by the scholarly Capability Brown in Kent (Kent Gardens Trust, £9.50); its remarkable cover shows an aerial photograph of seemingly endless wooded countryside that is, in fact, north Cray Place, inside the M25 and a reassuring example of Brown’s tenacious survival.
The most sumptuous production must be The Hampton Court Albums of Catherine the Great (Fontanka, £32). It tells the story of a group of views of Hampton Court by Brown’s most talented draughtsman and surveyor, John Spyers, which were purchased by Catherine the Great of Russia and lay unseen in the Hermitage Museum until a few years ago. Delightful in their own right, the drawings confirm the importance of Brown’s royal commission at Hampton Court, as well as the extent of the Empress’s love of all things English.
What Spyers did for Brown in his lifetime, Tim Scott Bolton has done for Brown’s landscapes today in A Brush with Brown (The Dovecote Press, £25). Visiting a selection of country houses on which Brown worked, the artist has produced a sumptuous album containing both oil paintings and watercolours, with accompanying commentaries, which triumphantly chronicle Brown’s landscapes as they are today. Beautifully designed by Humphrey Stone, the book confirms how painterly the creations of this most practical of men have become and, in so doing, reveals something of the enigma that Brown remains today.
George Plumptre is Chief Executive of the National Gardens Scheme.