First, a warning: I so enjoyed this book that I devoured it and cannot really be truly objective about it. It is a wonderful immersion into Brown’s world, with a fascinating list of well written characters, noble or otherwise.It is a page turner and a beautiful tribute to Lancelot Brown, the creator of many wonderful country house landscapes.
Jane Brown has long been one of my favourite writers on the history of gardening and gardeners. Her books on Gertrude Jekyll ( Gardens of a Golden Afternoon) and Vita Sackville West (Vita’s Other World and Sissinghurst) have long been in My Favourite Books pile, and so I was delighted when she turned her inquisitive eye and elegant prose to “Capability” Brown. (An epithet never applied to him during his lifetime, it ought to be noted)
Lancelot Brown was responsible for creating some of the most sublime country house landscapes made in the eighteenth century. His work, which achieved a timeless, effortless, natural effect, was distinguished from other lesser designers by allying beauty with practicality. He incorporated every need a great house possessed into the surrounding coherent landscape, providing forestry areas, lakes, drives and ornamental walks that abutted working fields.Ever practical as well as aware of the art of landscape, he was also known as an agricultural improver. He worked at most of the most famous and grand estates, and his work can still be enjoyed by visitors to these estates today. In fact so ubiquitous did his work become that many are under the impression that the effect was the result of nature, not his genius. Not so, as Griff Rhys Jones recently commented, in a BBC programme about Chatsworth. After viewing the Brownian landscape that surrounds the house which is so exquisite, he irreligiously and wittily noted:
This is what God would have done had he had the money
And while God didn’t have the money, Brown’s many aristocratic patrons did. One of the first was Lord Cobham at Stowe in Buckinghamshire,(shown below in an engraving from my own collection). Brown’s work and the methods he employed there are very satisfyingly described by Jane Brown in great detail. Visitors to Blenheim, Chatsworth, Harewood, Burghley,Warwick Castle, Charlecote, Lacock Abbey and Wimpole Hall to name a few, can still see his work, in the landscape that surrounds these great houses. And there are many many more examples too numerous to list here (but most are mentioned in the book)
Jane Brown tells Lancelot’s story with ease and with a vivacity that makes it as easy to read as the very best fiction. We not only follow his career, accompanying him on his ‘circuits’ around the grand estates of England and latterly in Wales, but we also are given insights into his happy domestic life, meeting his family and his circle, including his son-in-law the architect Henry Holland. My favourite character was his devoted Lincolnshire born wife, Bridget, known as “Biddy”, who ,while convivial enough with their friends, such as Pitt the Elder and the actor David Garrick, refused to be patronised by the grand dames who were the wives of Brown’s aristocratic patrons.
He began life in humble circumstances as as the son of a Northumbrian yeoman farmer but due to connections and advantageous commissions expertly executed he became the man who set the fashion and style of English landscape gardening, rising to become The King’s Master Gardener at Hampton Court.
My only gripe with the book is that it while it is copiously illustrated in black and white line drawing and with colour prints within the text, they are few large-scale illustrations to show exactly what effect Brown achieved. For those of us lucky enough to be familiar with his greatest creations Petworth, Blenheim, Harewood, Stowe,etc- it is not much of a problem. But for those who may not be so familiar, I think it does him a disservice. While Turner’s impressionistic view of Blenheim – the sweep from the gate at Woodstock to the house is the magnificent view shown (see below)is included – a modern photograph might have conveyed a little more of Brown’s legacy, an effect that now seems so “natural” it is often taken as such.
Here is a photograph of mine of Chatsworth, taken last summer, and the stunningly beautiful Brownian landscape can clearly be seen.(Please do click on this picture to enlarge it to see in detail how beautiful this landscape truly is)
Did Jane Austen approve of Brown and his works?Probably not. Her maternal family, the Leighs, had steadfastly refused to follow the fashion for landscape gardens at Stoneleigh, given their allegiance to the Stuarts and the old anti Hanoverian order. The 18th century was a time when adopting fashions in grand gardens was very much a matter of personal and court politics, and their refusal to update Stoneleigh until the early 19th century reflects their stance.
The title of the book, The Omnipotent Magician is taken from a passage in Cowper’s poem, The Task, wherein he directly criticises Brown and his profession:
He speaks. The lake in front becomes a lawn,
Woods vanish, hills subside and valleys rise,
And streams,as if created for his use,
Pursue the track of his directing wand,
Sinuous or straight,now rapid and now slow,
Now murmuring soft, now roaring in cascades,
Even he bids.
As we know that Jane Austen was an admirer of Cowper and one of her heroines, Fanny Price of Mansfield Park, “her Fanny”, loved him too, and furthermore despised ”improvers”, it is probably safe to assume that she would not have been enamoured of this book or its intriguing subject. But I have been and recommend it to you wholeheartedly.