John Phibbs is encouraging owners of the surviving Brown landscapes to open them to the public for celebration during 2016
“Brown’s contemporary, Richard Owen Cambridge, longed to get to heaven before Brown, so he could see it before the great landscape gardener had improved it.”
This year, the French will be marking the anniversary of the death of André Le Nôtre, the gardener of Louis XIV and creator of the greatest jewel among the many that France has to be thankful for – the garden at Versailles.
Le Nôtre’s birthday has not made the splash in England in 2012 that the French might have hoped for. They may be shrugging it off as a clash of dates, what with the Jubilee and the Olympics. We might say that it is difficult for us to give Le Nôtre the attention he deserves because we have Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown’s birthday to celebrate in 2016.
I once had to ask John Sales, the ex-chief gardens adviser of the National Trust, to give me directions for a journey across England. I learned from this that he navigates from park to park, just as a publican might navigate from pub to pub. But there are quite a few parts of the country (including Slough, Southampton, Stafford, Blenheim and Bedfordshire), where you can easily navigate not just from park to park, but from ‘Brown to Brown’.
My children, sitting in the back of the car on the expeditions that I took when I was exploring Brown’s landscapes for the first time, would groan as I pointed out yet another one. Without knowing it, in their longing to find a place where Brown had not made his mark, they sounded rather like his contemporary, Richard Owen Cambridge, who longed to get to heaven before Brown, so he could see it before the great landscape gardener had improved it.
Besides the quality, the sheer quantity of the places that Brown worked on make it all too easy to take him for granted, and to expend one’s curiosity instead on the few landscapes of consequence where he didn’t work.
The image comes into my mind of a group of mediaeval astronomers, with their eyes fixed on the furthest, faintest stars. Every night they peer into the dark sky until the moon rises, and then, being unable to see for its brightness, they take off their wizard hats and go downstairs for cocoa and biscuits. It takes the tea boy to notice how impossibly enormous the moon is, how its influence on Earth must be incalculable, and how that, rather than the arcana of stars, it is the obvious thing to study.
Brown is England’s moon. His contribution has been so prodigious that we take him for granted and turn away from his high road to the dusty nooks and corners of the landscapes of his lesser contemporaries. Yet somehow, despite the best efforts of his critics, his reputation and his landscapes have survived, and his influence has been, and remains, a global one.
So what can it be that makes him a man whose time has come? Could it be the scale at which he worked, the simplicity of his materials, the effort he made to make everything seem an easy and uncontrived fusion of the natural and designed worlds? It is hard to put one’s finger on, but there is some quality in his work that relates directly to the way in which we live and plan our lives today, and that continues to inspire British landscape architecture.
One needs only to look at the range of organisations that have caught fire with the build-up to his tercentenary in 2016 – not just the Historic Houses Association, but English Heritage and the National Trust, Natural England and the Environment Agency, the National Gardens Scheme, the Association of Gardens Trusts, Visit Britain, Visit England and the Landscape Institute itself. The list goes on and on, yet these are no more than barometers to his national popularity, for the whole country, we hope, will rise to celebrate.
Exhibitions are planned in London, as well as in key Brown sites throughout the country, and we are encouraging all the surviving landscapes (about 150) that are attributable to Brown to open to the public during 2016. All the owners and managers of these, together with landscape architects who have worked on them, have been invited to come to a seminar at Ampthill Park, Bedfordshire, on 13 June this year.
The aim of this seminar is to discuss with owners how they can best contribute to the celebration in 2016 and to find imaginative solutions to the many difficulties that beset opening a landscape to the public. Brown’s landscapes are likely to be particularly challenging because in addition to the garden and park, he usually laid out a riding to provide drives for the family through the outlying farms of the estate. That is why it seems sensible to get started now, while we still have four years in hand.
So if you have worked on a Brown, or if you happen to own one and have not had the invitation yet, then get in touch by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org and help us plan what will be the most important event of 2016.
John Phibbs, principal of Debois Landscape Survey Group, is a renowned garden historian and author with more than 30 years’ experience of planning and management of historic landscapes, conservation and restoration planning. He has set up the Capability Brown 1716-2016 Partnership of 20 organisations to celebrate the life and achievements of Britain’s greatest landscape gardener and to spread greater understanding and enjoyment of his work and influence. His book on Capability Brown as a designer will be published in 2015.