In Capable Hands on More 4

For gardening fans it’s all been coming up roses recently on More 4. A few weeks ago we were treated to The Autistic Gardeners and now we have Titchmarsh on Capability Brown on Thursday evenings.

Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown was born in Northumberland in 1716 and throughout a career spanning fifty years produced a body of work of such scale, scope, ambition and vision that he is rightly considered to be the godfather of landscape design. 

The principal premise of the series is the discovery in the archive of Belvoir Estate in Leicestershire of a set of completed Brown plans for a parkland landscape on the estate which was never built. The current occupant, the Duchess of Rutland is determined, initially at any rate,  to realise the vision and has enlisted Alan to help get it done. Along the way we get background and insights into the Brown style, we see examples of his work on other estates, we get biographical information. For me, so far, it has all amounted to must see TV.

Capability Brown

Brown’s signature style was the conversion of agricultural land into parkland. He set about this by resculpting vast tracts of land to create valleys and glades into which he would introduce  water by diverting local water courses; brooks, streams and small rivers. These artificial lakes were often connected by narrow straits camouflaged amongst clusters of trees and in many cases partially damned to facilitate changes in water level from one lake to the next. The size and orientation of all of this was carefully considered to provide maximum theatricality in the gradual unveiling of the landscape to visitors.  Clusters of trees were carefully planted to frame views from every angle, views which acquired varying degrees of drama depending on the direction the visitor walked.

The first thing that strikes about Brown is the scale upon which he worked. The settings were vast, his vision was vast and the work it necessitated almost incomprehensibly vast considering that the most sophisticated labour saving device available in the eighteenth century was the wheelbarrow. To conceive such precise plans on such grand estates by merely walking the land took a special kind of instinctive vision, a form of genius.

Alan described how the landscape paintings of the French Baroque artist Claude Lorrain were a source of inspiration for Brown. We saw several  examples of the ingenuity of the man; using trees as a means of framing views, creating viewing points and surprises amidst the landscape, his planting of a “skirt” of trees through 360 degrees so that at no point on the horizon is there not a connection with the sky, flooding the valley at Blenheim Palace to create the correct proportion between the bridge, the landscape and the house itself in the background. While working at Stowe for Viscount Cobham he produced a guide book which described the different zones within the garden. He built numerous follies which incorporated rich symbolism  and used  planting to enhance and complement them.

He brought theatricality to the garden experience something a  designer might achieve in a suburban setting today and get giddy with self satisfaction. Mrs. Brown’s Boy was doing it in an epic setting 250 years ago.   

Alan’s devotion to the man is evident from the outset and the show attempts to balance the lavish appraisal of Brown’s work with the inescapable TV imperative of providing a bit of drama, ‘jeopardy’ as they call it. The jeopardy here, as it usually does,  comes in the shape of pound signs and the Duchess’s misgivings over committing scarce funds to realise a vision that may not ultimately pay its way towards the running of such a huge estate.

It will be interesting to see who wins the debate over whether to make Brownian parkland out of one particularly vast piece of agricultural land thereby rendering it impractical for crop production. I suspect that the Duchess and the annual £45,000.00 tillage yield the field produces may have the last word on that one. Tune in Thursday to find out.  

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