James Grande

Lancelot of the lake

Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia offers two contrasting views on a ‘Capability’ Brown landscape at the imagined Sidley Park.

Lancelot of the lake
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The Omnipotent Magician

Jane Brown

Chatto, pp. 384, £

Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia offers two contrasting views on a ‘Capability’ Brown landscape at the imagined Sidley Park.

Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia offers two contrasting views on a ‘Capability’ Brown landscape at the imagined Sidley Park. Lady Croom, the 19th-century owner, praises its harmonious natural style, even down to ‘the right amount of sheep tastefully arranged’. Two hundred years later, a garden historian laments the destruction of the ‘sublime geometry’ of 17th-century formal gardens: ‘paradise in the age of reason’, before being ‘ploughed under by Capability Brown’. It is not even English, Hannah Jarvis complains:

English landscape was invented by gardeners imitating foreign painters who were evoking classical authors … Capability Brown doing Claude, who was doing Virgil.

The fact that ‘Capability’ Brown is still celebrated and satirised today proves his impact on our ideas of what a garden should be. For many country estates, a ‘Capability’ Brown landscape remains a prime attraction, yet the man who created them is in many ways elusive. This is a situation that Jane Brown — who refers to her namesake throughout as Lancelot — can only partly rectify, despite her diligent research and encyclopaedic knowledge of his career.

It is unsurprising that his early life is poorly documented: he was the fifth of six children of William Brown, steward at Kirkharle in the Wansbeck valley of Northumberland, ‘a modest birth’, Jane Brown notes, ‘for a baby destined to cut a glorious swathe across England and dine with dukes’. He first worked at Kirkharle, moved to Boston, where he met his future wife Bridget Wayet, before getting his major break with Viscount Cobham at Stowe.

Cobham would provide ‘a masterclass in dealing with a difficult lord’: having been one of Marlborough’s greatest generals, in retirement he commanded a military, fortress-style garden, in the manner of Tristram Shandy’s Uncle Toby. Lancelot supervised the construction of the Cobham monument and excavated the Grecian Valley, quickly picking up further commissions. He was renowned for his ability to survey an estate rapidly, assure the owner of its ‘great capabilities’ and produce a plan. He then left for the next project, returning regularly to inspect progress. Jane Brown does her best to follow this exhausting itinerary, admitting ‘it is impossible to keep up with him’, and Lancelot himself complained that ‘when I am galloping in one part of the world my men are making blunders and neglects’ somewhere else.

Even in these, well documented, years, there is little sense of the man behind the rolling lawns, clumps of trees (his favourite, the cedar of Lebanon), cascades, ha-has and serpentine lakes (150 of them, in Jane Brown’s tally). The glimpses of his domestic life are few, though suggestive: his youngest daughter Peggy was ‘the only child who seems really interested in his work and who treasured his letters’, while a furious row with his son Jack, who had returned as a captain from the Americas, ended with Lancelot declaring, ‘I will give up the Sea to him, but the Land he had best leave to me’.

Bridget Brown and her children were left at home in a series of tied houses, culminating in Wilderness House, Hampton Court, after Lancelot’s appointment in 1764 as the King’s Master Gardener at Kew and Richmond. Meanwhile, Lancelot enjoyed the admission his job provided into the world of his employers, Lord Chatham recommending him to a friend as a man ‘of sentiments much above his birth’, who ‘sits down at the tables of all the house of Lords’.

The Omnipotent Magician suggests that discretion in dealing with employers was an important part of Lancelot’s credentials, and it is a quality that Jane Brown’s own, often reticent, style is well suited to. She cautiously suggests that if Lancelot can be said to have had any political allegiance, it was ‘Pittian’, and he was deeply affected by the crisis of 1777, writing to Hester Chatham, two days before Lord Chatham’s death:

I am just returned from a long northern expedition … I had the comfort to find one universal Prayer, one wish that his Lordship’s life may be preserved to save this Devoted Sinking County.

However, she also detects Jacobite sympathies, in apparent conflict with a style associated with Whiggish ideas of English liberty.

To work for a wide range of clients, who were often political opponents, Lancelot needed to win implicit trust, while his landscapes had to complement a house and setting, not draw attention to their creator. Jane Brown pays due attention to his major achievements – broadening the lake at Blenheim to do justice to Vanbrugh’s bridge, enclosing Chatsworth with screens of trees on the surrounding slopes and returning to Northumberland to design the setting of Alnwick Castle. However, she also describes many less famous gardens, and her book should find a home in any garden- lovers’ glove compartment, offering a detailed map of Lancelot’s England.