It is important to understand Capability Brown in the wider European context and the Philosophy of the Enlightenment. Philosophers all had their differences, but shared a common belief in the problem solving power of the human mind. For example viewing a new assignment for a potential client, Brown would proclaim that it ‘had capabilities’. His prescience, though initially incredibly costly for the landowner, resulted in low maintenance in the longer term. His designs took centuries to mature, illustrating his unique ability to envisage the future.
In the Enlightenment led 18th Century, a re-evaluation of ‘Nature’ took place. Initially seen as a state of disorder and viewed with fear it became the embodiment of purity in contrast to the perceived corruption of the cities. Painters responded to this change in conceptions of landscape, producing poetic works inspired by visions of Arcadia and the Frenchman Claude Lorrain (1600-82) became the most famous exponent of the ‘ideal landscape’ of the Classical periods of Greece and Rome.
For young, wealthy men of the 18th Century, passing through Paris en route to Rome a visit to the Académie Royale became an essential part of their cultural education. Here they will have seen Claude’s work which appeared to encapsulate their Enlightenment conceptions of Arcadia.
On their return the former ‘Grand Tourists’ set about redesigning their gardens and estates with new enthusiasm and Brown responded to their wishes. His particular ability was in assessing a potential client’s property to see if it was capable of remodeling as the ex-Grand Tourist desired. His designs would ‘borrow’ the landscape of neighbouring estates to create an illusion of uninterrupted space. And replanting provided the receding ‘wings’ of a new Arcadia theatrically sculpted by Capability Brown.
Brownian Enlightenment inspired design became the template for the ‘English Garden’ and spread throughout Europe. For example, in 1787 Friedrich Wilhelm II directed the German Royal Gardener, George Steiner to redesign the garden of Charlottenburg Schloss in the ‘English landscape style’.
And today Brown’s influence continues undiminished.
About the Author: Rodney Anness. BA (hons) MA. Volunteer at Scampston Hall, North Yorkshire