New Book | Place-Making: The Art of Capability Brown, 1716–1783

Posted in books by Editor on September 5, 2016

This one is an interesting economic model of publication. Historic England is the publisher, but at least a portion of the funding depends upon supporters (‘subscribers’ to use the eighteenth-century term) pledging money at Unbound. Hearing John Phibbs pitch for the project in the 3-minute video is fascinating: in effect, the ‘elevator pitch’ is directed toward potential readers rather than an editor. CH

John Phibbs, Place-Making: The Art of Capability Brown, 1716–1783 (London: Historic England, 2016), 320 pages, £50.

Capability Brown was a great artist, and this book shows what his artistry consisted of. His influence on the culture of England has been as great as that of Turner, Telford and Wordsworth.

Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown (1716–1783) is the iconic figure at the head of the English landscape style, a tradition that has dominated landscape design in the western world. He was widely acclaimed for his genius in his own day, lived on personal terms with the king, a friend of five prime-ministers, and the great men of his day.

Two factors make his astonishing achievements relevant to us today: first the scale at which he worked and the prolixity of his commissions have given him a direct influence on some half a million acres of England and Wales (that’s an average size English county); and second, arising from that, Brown didn’t just transform the English countryside, he also transformed our idea of what it is to be English and what England is. His work is everywhere, but goes largely unnoticed, the phrase ‘Invisible in plain sight’ comes to mind. Even today though he has had biographers, his work has generated very little analysis.

Very little of what he wrote survives, but the reason why he isn’t noticed—and this point was made in his own day in the 18th century—is that his was such a naturalistic style that all his best work was mistaken for untouched nature. This has made it very difficult to see and understand, which leaves us in a strange situation today. Of the 250 or so country houses for which he designed parks, about 200 are still worth seeing, and millions of people every year visit the 140 that are at least occasionally open to the public. Yet if you were to ask any one of these visitors the simplest questions about the parks (‘what are they for?’, ‘how do they work?’, ‘why did they need so much grass?’ ‘what do they have to do with country houses?’, for example), they would look at you bemused, as if you had asked what mountains are for. For people who are used to English landscape, parks simply are what they are: parks have grass because they are parks.

This blindness to these obvious questions is not confined to the general public. Professional landscape architects, academics and those involved in landscape conservation would be no more able to answer them. It is not just that there is no consensus in understanding Capability Brown’s work, but there has been no attempt to understand it. Even the framework of language for understanding it is lacking. For all his acknowledged importance, Brown is a blank. This book for the first time answers these simple questions about the English landscape tradition and Brown’s place in it, but it aims primarily to make landscape legible, to show people where to stand, what to look at and how to see.

John Phibbs read Classics at Oxford and then developed the idea that historic parks and gardens could and should be recorded and analysed like any other works of art, and that this would be a sensible first step towards deciding what should happen to them next. This idea was widely adopted after the great storm of October 1987. John Phibbs himself spent the next five years building up his own practice in landscape management and assessing landscapes for English Heritage. It was an amazing education out of which came the realisations that Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown was not only the most prolific but also the greatest of the English landscape gardeners, and that his work had long been misunderstood, largely because of the mischievous attacks made on it by the proponents of the Picturesque style, which arose after his death in reaction to his work. In this book John hopes to put right the wrongs that have been done to Brown’s reputation and to re-establish him in his rightful place as a figure of great significance in the characterisation of England and Wales.

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