‘Capability’

More abstractly, the rise of informality in garden design coincides with a growing interest in empiricism. A devotion to rational geometry gave way to careful observation of the apparent irregularities of the natural world. The serpentine ‘line of beauty’ identified in William Hogarth’s “The Analysis of Beauty” much resembles the serpentine curves of a Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown lake. In the middle of the century, Brown (1716-83) was ascendant and he remains the best-remembered of his peers, in part because he was so prolific, but also because of his memorable moniker which derives from his habit of telling his patrons, having toured their estates, that he thought he saw ‘capabilities’ in them, his own word for ‘possibilities’ or ‘potential’. Brown’s design formula included the elimination of terraces, balustrades, and all traces of formality; a belt of trees thrown around the park; a river dammed to create a winding lake; and handsome trees dotted through the parkland, either individually or in clumps. Interestingly, Brown did not call himself a landscape gardener. He preferred the terms ‘placemaker’ and ‘improver’, which in many ways are conceptually closer to the role of the modern-day landscape architect than ‘landscape gardener’. (…)

Criticism of Brown began in his own day and intensified after his death. He was criticized in his own time, not for destroying many formal gardens (which he certainly did), but for not going far enough towards nature. Among his detractors were two Hereford squires’ Uvedale Price and Richard Payne Knight, both advocates of the new picturesque style. To count as Picturesque, a view or a design had to be a suitable subject for a painting, but enthusiasts for the new fashion were of the opinion that Brown’s landscapes were too boring to qualify. Knigts’s didactic poem “The Landscape” was directed against Brown, whose interventions, he said, could only create a ‘dull, vapid, smooth, and tranquil scene’. What was required was some roughness, shagginess, and variety. This is an argument mirrored in today’s opposition between manicured lawns and wildflower meadows. In the United States, where smooth trimmed lawns have been the orthodox treatment for the front yard, often regulated by city ordinances, growing anything other than a well-tended monoculture of grass in front of the house can be controversial.

Ian Thompson, Landscape Architecture. A Very Short Introduction. (2014)

  

Lancelot “Capability” Brown, Blenheim Estate (1764)

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Two Meanings

The two meanings inherent in the diaphor of landscape are well expressed in the definition of landscape in Dr. Johnson’s classic 1755 dictionary: (1) “A region; the prospect of a country”; (2) “A picture, representing an extent of space, with the various objects in it.” At first glance, it might seem that definition one refers to the object of representation, whereas the second refers to the pictorial representation of that object. But this is not the case. In the second definition, what is represented pictorially is not a region or a country, but first and foremost “space,” the “objects” being secondary to the space. It may seem counterintuitive that an artist is more interested in space than the objects in that space, but the fact is that space itself, as a form of nature, is an important object of artistic representation. When the various objects in a painting representing an extent of space happen to be objects identifiable with those normally found in a region or country, it is easy to think of landscape 2 as being the pictorial representation of landscape 1, and thereby forget the predominant importance of the space being represented. This is especially the case because space does not appear to be as “visible” as the various objects represented, even though it could be argued that all one sees in this sort of painting is space!

William Kent + Lancelot “Capability” Brown et alt. Stowe (1730-1751)

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(Header: Fragment of Rene Magritte, The Human Condition (1933))