Magazine article The Spectator

Lancelot of the Lake

Magazine article The Spectator

Lancelot of the Lake

Article excerpt

The Omnipotent Magician

by Jane Brown

Chatto, £20, pp. 384,

ISBN 9780701182120

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. …

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