The Landscape Guide
The amazing changes which have taken place in the appreciation of Lancelot 'Capability' Brown as a designer provide a second illustration of the effects which different uses of 'nature' and 'landscape' have had on taste in garden and landscape design. For most of his professional life Brown was hailed as a near-genius and arbiter of taste. His work was seen to be uniquely British and in the most 'natural' style which could be conceived.

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Brown's status was fully recognised when he was appointed Royal Gardener at Hampton Court in 1764. Three years later the naturalness of his style was praised in an anonymous poem on The Rise and Progress of the Present Taste in Planting Parks, Pleasure Grounds, Gardens, Etc. The author gives fulsome praise to Brown and emphasises the naturalness of his schemes: 

He barren tracts with every charm illumes,
At his command a new Creation blooms;
Born to grace Nature, and her works complete,
With all that's beautiful, sublime and great!
For him each Muse enwreathes the Lawrel Crown,
And consecrates to Fame immortal Brown. 

The conception of Nature which the poet had in mind was gentle and pastoral. As David Hume had written in 1748 'the eye is pleased with the prospect of corn-fields and loaded vineyards, horses grazing, and flocks pasturing: but flies the view of briars and brambles, affording shelter to wolves and serpents'. 

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Brown designed both the house and the park at Claremont in Surrey. His admirers regarded this, and other architectural works, as adequate proof of his ability to handle architectural details. 

Further praise for Brown and his conception of nature came from two important books in 1770. The first was Thomas Whately's Observations on Modern Gardening, which Loudon later called `the grand fundamental standard work on English gardening'. It contains detailed descriptions of several of Brown's designs and practical advice on how to achieve similar effects with ground, woods, water, rocks and buildings. The second book, Horace Walpole's essay On the history of modern taste in gardening was completed in 1770 but not published until 1780. Since its appearance Walpole's essay has exerted an enormous influence over garden historians. Walpole praises Whately's book as `a system of rules pushed to a great degree of refinement, and collected from the best examples and practice'. After debating a few of the points raised by Whately, Walpole concludes:  

In the meantime how rich, how gay, how picturesque the face of the country! The demolition of walls laying open each improvement, every journey is made through a succession of pictures; and even where taste is wanting in the spot improved, the general view is embellished by variety. If no relapse to barbarism, formality and seclusion is made, what landscapes will dignify every quarter of our island, when the plantations that are making have attained venerable maturity! A specimen of what our gardens will be may be seen at Petworth, where the portion of the park nearest the house has been allotted to the modern style.  

The park at Petworth had been designed by Brown in 1752 and was often to be painted by J M W Turner in the years to come. Walpole's praise for the design was a way of praising the designer in spite of his resolve to exclude `living artists' from his Essay. It is especially interesting that he praises the `modern style' for its lack of `formality and seclusion'. When the reaction against Brown set in the main charges against him were his excessive formalism and lack of 'naturalness'. Taste had moved on and the public had come to appreciate 'briars and brambles' and even the wild scenery of the Lake Distsict. The once-praised 'natural'style of Brown was left beached by the tide of fashion. It now appeared 'artificial', 'stiff' and even 'formal'.

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The first serious criticism of Brown, in this vein, came from Sir William Chambers in his Dissertation on Oriental Gardening, published in 1772. Chambers criticised 'gardens which differ little from common fields' and praised the Chinese for introducing some of the terrible aspects of nature into their gardens:  

Their scenes of terror are composed of gloomy woods, deep vallies inacessible to the sun, impending barren rocks, dark caverns, and impetuous cataracts rushing down the mountains from all parts. The trees are ill formed, forced out of their natural directions, and seemingly torn to pieces by the violence of tempests.....  

Chambers made other criticisms of Brown which soon caused his book to be ridiculed by Mason and others, but the substantial criticism contained in the above quotation had been foreshadowed by Walpole and soon became widespread.  

The public taste for savage scenery was encouraged by the Reverend William Gilpin. He became 'the high priest of the picturesque', and after the publication of his Picturesque Tours commenced in 1782 he did much to popularise the type of scenery which Chambers liked in Chinese gardens and which Gilpin found in the Wye Valley and the English Lakes. Gilpin published an essay on Picturesque Beauty in 1792 and suggested that the smoothness of a garden was of no use in making a picture and should be roughened with 'rugged oaks instead of flowering shrubs' and by scattering stones and brushwood in the foreground .

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Left, A Brownian scene from The Landscape. Knight considered this type of scenery too dull, vapid and smooth.
Right, a Gilpinesque scene from
The Landscape.  Knight loved the broken banks and shaggy mounds

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Gilpin's line of criticism was directed against Brown's gardens with devestating effect by Price, and Knight after 1793. The first shot came from Knight in his didactic poem The Landscape  

See yon fantastic band,
With charts, pedometers, and rules in hand,
Advance triumphant, and alike lay waste
The forms of nature, and the works of taste!
T'improve, adorn, and polish, they profess;
But shave the goddess, whom they come to dress;
Level each broken bank and shaggy mound,
And fashion all to one unvaried round;
One even round, that ever gently flows,
Nor forms abrupt, nor broken colours knows;
But, wrapt all o'er in everlasting green, makes one dull,vapid, smooth, and tranquil scene.......

Hence, hence! thou haggard fiend, however called,
Thin, meagre genius of the bare and bald;
Thy spade and mattock here at length lay down,
And follow to the tomb thy fav'rite brown:
Thy fav'rite brown, whose innovating hand
First dealt thy curses o'er this fertile land;
First taught the walk in formal spires to move,
And from their haunts the secret Dryads drove; 

Brown's contemporaries would have been most puzzled to see their favourite lampooned for destroying nature and making formal walks and canals. But Knight 's criticisms were supported by Uvedale Price, and echoed by a host of critics for more than a century. Price was particularly critical of Brown's handling of water. He wrote that 'Mr Brown grossly mistook his talent, for among all his tame productions, his pieces of made water are perhaps the most so'. In Price's judgement the serpentine curves of Brown's lakes, and the lack of vegetation on their banks, made them look too like canals:  

In Mr Brown's naked canals nothing detains the eye a moment, and the two sharp extremeties appear to cut into each other. If a near approach to mathematical exactness was a merit instead of a defect, the sweeps of Mr Brown's water would be admirable.  

Even Repton, who normally supported Brown, thought he had erred in taming the River Derwent:  

Where a rattling, turbulent mountain-stream passes through a rocky valley, like the Derwent at Chatsworth, perhaps Mr Brown was wrong in checking its noisy course, to produce the glassy surface of a slow moving river.  

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A caricature of  a Brownian plan from J. C. Loudon's Country Residences, 1806. Loudon described Brown's design philosophy as 'one uniform system of smoothing, levelling and clumping of the most tiresome monotony joined to the most disgusting formality' A wild and irregular design from J. C. Loudon's Country Residences, 1806. His design embodies the concept of nature which led to the unpopularity of Brown's style.

In the first phase of his professional career J C Loudon admired Gilpin, Price and Knight, and surpassed them in advocating the creation of wild and irregular gardens. He therefore included a vicious attack on Brown in his 1802 Observations on landscape gardening 

What first brought him into reputation was a large sheet of water which he made at Stowe, in which, as in all his other works, he displayed the most wretched and Chinese-like taste. Wherever his levelling hand has appeared, adieu to every natural beauty! see every thing give way to one uniform system of smoothing, levelling and clumping of the most tiresome monotony, joined to the most disgusting formality.  

The comments from W Gilpin's nephew, which have already been noted, were echoed by many nineteenth century authors - who often coupled abuse of his aesthetic taste with remarks on his humble social origins and lack of education. Sir Walter Scott criticised both Kent and Brown. He wrote that their imitations of nature had 'no more resemblence to that nature which we desire to see imitated, than the rouge of an antiquated coquette, bearing all the marks of a sedulous toilette, bears to the artless blush of a cottage girl'. 

Criticism of Brown continued in the opening decades of the twentieth century. T H Mawson remarked in 1901 that `had Brown and his followers been content to imitate nature, they would simply have perpetrated so many absurd and expensive frauds, but this imitation did not meet the whole of their misguided practice'. Even the wise and generous Gertrude Jekyll had a special dislike for Brown:  

The long avenues, now just grown to maturity in many of England's greatest parks, fell before Brown's relentless axe, for straight lines were abhorrent to the new 'landscape' school. Everything was to be 'natural' - sham natural generally, and especially there was to be water everywhere......Possibly his avowed dislike of stonework arose from his incapacity of designing it; certainly when he did attempt anything architectural......his ignorance and want of taste were clearly betrayed. 

The Studio was highly critical of Brown in 1907:  

As he knew practically nothing of his subject, and as, moreover, he prided himself on knowing nothing, he adopted a set formula which expressed his conception of nature, and to this formula he almost always adhered......That such narrow conventionality should ever have been accepted as in accordance with the spirit of nature seems to us now almost incredible, and it is difficult to understand how anyone of intelligence could have believed that this sort of empty formality was worthy to be described as landscape gardening. 

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The revival in Brown's popularity appears to date from the time when a foreign comentator, Marie-Louise Gothein, recognised his work as a distinct style rather than a bad attempt to imitate wild nature. She observed in 1913 that 'Brown was the original advocate of Hogarth's line of beauty'. The point was taken up by Christopher Hussey seventeen years later in his seminal book, The Picturesque. Hussey observed that Brown attempted 'to create landscapes that should arouse emotions, by means of the recipies for beauty evolved by Hogarth and Burke'. He supported his observation with a lovely quotation from Burke which appears to describe a Brown park:  

Most people have observed the sort of sense they have had of being swiftly drawn in an easy coach on a smooth turf, with gradual ascents and declivities. This will give a better idea of the Beautiful than almost anything else'.  

In 1950, when writing an introduction to Dorothy Stroud's monograph on Brown, Hussey went further and spoke of Brown as 'the most celebrated English landscape architect of the eighteenth century' . The association of Brown with Hogarth, Burke and Englishness proved irresistable to later critics.

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Brown became a national hero. The ultimate seal of approval, for the twentieth century, came from Pevsner in an edition of his Outline of European Archiecture which makes no reference to Repton, Loudon or Lutyens

The great name in the history of mid-eighteenth century gardening is Lancelot Brown (Capability Brown, 1715-83). His are the wide, softly sweeping lawns, the artfully scattered clumps of trees, and the serpentine lakes which revolutionised garden art all over Europe and America. 

Hoskins also praised Brown and remarks that 'In 1764 he created at Blenheim the most magnificent private lake in the country by damming the little river Glyme : "there is nothing finer in Europe," says Sacheverell Sitwell. He manipulated square miles of landscape in the park, planting trees on a scale consonant with the massive Vanburgh house'.  

Nan Fairbrother even defends his clumps: 'this was how Capability Brown established the superb trees in his landscape parks, by planting a close group of saplings and protective shrubs and thinning them as they grew'.  

In recent years Brown has only been criticised by those writers who continue to lament the loss of the old formal gardens which were destroyed in order to make way for Brownian parks. It is more a criticism of the garden owners than of the designer they employed.  

The astonishing change in the appreciation of Brown as a landscape designer is a consequence of the development of garden history as a serious subject. It became evident that he was a stylist, and that the nature which he sought to imitate was not the wild nature of briars, brambles and the Lake District. His love was for that gentler nature which characterises the English lowlands; for serpentine and smoothly flowing curves. Serpentine curves can be conceived to occupy an intermediate position in the Neoplatonic hierarchy. They are not as perfect as the circle and square but they have more generality than the random patterns and jagged lines which characterise wild forests and mountains.

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