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Folio: The landscapes of Lancelot Brown

The ‘natural’ English landscape tradition was anything but

Brown plan audley end. credit english heritagejaedit

Brown plan audley end. credit english heritagejaedit

It seems somewhat pertinent that the tercentenary of landscape designer Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown’s birth should arrive at a time of such uncertainty for British identity and mentality. In the wake of the EU referendum, anything bearing a whiff of ‘Little England’ – country estates, manicured landscapes, even The Great British Bake Off – which were once tweely acceptable, will never be quite the same.

Brown seemed destined to have England’s greatest green fingers. Born  to a land agent and with an elder mason-architect brother, his defining moment came in 1741, joining Lord Cobham’s gardening staff at Stowe to work under William Kent. Allowed to take freelance work on the side from Cobham’s aristocrat chums, Brown quickly became the gardener among landed families.

Despite appearances, English landscape gardens are of course not natural at all, and full of tricks of the eye. One of Brown’s trademarks was the use of the ‘ha-ha’ (a sunken vertical barrier) to blend several pieces of parkland into one rolling vista, twisting nature to appear perfect from  the point of view of those lucky enough  to behold it.

‘Brown and the tradition he was a part of demonstrate that the idea of nationhood is far from being out of our control – it can be moulded, shaped and changed’

Audley End, Essex, shown here drawn in 1762, is characteristic of this deception in the name of the Picturesque. Sir John Griffin agreed a contract of work including widening the River Cam so it appeared as a linear lake, along with extensive planting and sweeping lawns. This was to be achieved in just 13 months – and when it wasn’t, a bizarre series of heated third-person exchanges between the two ensued. Compare the plan here with an aerial photograph and the river bends in the opposite direction. 

Much like Brown would tell his clients – clearly enough to earn his moniker – Britain certainly has ‘capability’ for improvement. If all these landscapes seem a little indulgent, what the work of Brown and the tradition he was a part of does demonstrate is that the idea of nationhood is far from being out of our control – it can be moulded, shaped and changed. 

But bumbling as we were through our English landscape, the tricks of the eye have been revealed – and a vertical drop has suddenly become visible:  ‘ha-ha’, indeed.