Regardless of his popularity amongst elderly ladies, it’s probably fair to say that Alan Titchmarsh will not be retrospectively bracketed along with the great artists of the late twentieth century – the painters, poets, authors and musicians who left their mark on his lifetime. There is art in great gardening, though it’s not recognised as Art itself. One exception to the rule, and a man who was undoubtedly as creative and revolutionary as the more conventional artists surrounding him, was born three-hundred years ago this month. His Christian name was grandiose enough, Lancelot, but he’s more commonly known by his nickname. I’m talking about, of course, Capability Brown.
If you’ve ever visited a prominent stately home in this country, chances are you’ve seen Capability Brown’s handiwork; during roughly forty years as a working man, his elegant brushstrokes stamped his genius on the green and pleasant land and ripped up the rulebook for landscape gardening. Whereas previously, the gardens of English country houses were rigidly formal and a tad dull, little more than an afterthought to the houses themselves, Brown transformed them so that the houses were incorporated into their surroundings, one of many aesthetic features on those sweeping emerald vistas that maintain their ability to take the breath away.
Capability Brown’s reputation dipped somewhat in the Romantic era, when his designs weren’t quite wild and rustic enough for the ‘back to nature’ brigade and their melancholy follies, though it was slowly resurrected later in the nineteenth century and he is now rightly recognised as the true artist he was. As with his fellow artists, Brown was dependent upon a wealthy patron, and he ended up with one of the country’s most notable – the sovereign himself, King George III. It took another century until proper landscaped civic parks paid for by councils and corporations transplanted the kind of scenic delights Brown gifted the private estates of noblemen and royalty into the public arena, but his influence on the best was distinct.
The physical impact of the Industrial Revolution on the landscape had prompted the eventual creation of public parkland in an attempt to resurrect a few acres of the lost rural past in the heart of the city, but Britain’s role as the engine of the Empire continued to leave an inky imprint on the major industrial heartlands. By the turn of the twentieth century, social reformer Ebenezer Howard had hatched the concept of the Garden City, unveiling his master-plan in his 1898 book, ‘To-morrow: A Peaceful Path to True Reform’. In it, he pioneered a notion of a new-town that would marry the benefits of both town and country while avoiding their respective drawbacks. Howard caught the mood of the moment amongst reforming intellectuals and his ideas were put into practice with the world’s first Garden City, Letchworth in Hertfordshire, upon which work began in 1903.
Mocked and marvelled at in equal measure, the physical offshoots of the Garden City Movement nevertheless proved highly influential when it came to creating communities from scratch in the first half of the twentieth century. Letchworth was followed by the more famous Welwyn Garden City in 1920, and similar principles were used to found the post-war new-towns. The collective inheritance of the rural idyll – one that conveniently leaves out the hardship of genuine country life – is one that seems intrinsic to the British state of mind. However, when one considers that, outside of our long history of maritime commerce, we had a largely agricultural economy for centuries until the Industrial Revolution, it’s no wonder we hark back to it as a Golden Age; the rural is more deeply engrained in our our shared national genes than the urban. It was present in the famous BBC Interludes of the 1950s, particularly the potent image of horse-drawn ploughs, and is perhaps responsible for the townie part-timers who purchase rural properties they only reside in for a month or two a year whilst natives are priced out of the market.
The fallacy of a pre-industrial Golden Age was certainly a crucial theme in the 1974 ‘Doctor Who’ story, ‘Invasion of the Dinosaurs’, in which a group of self-righteous, left-leaning Hampstead intellectuals (one of whom strangely looks like Jeremy Corbyn) combine with a group of neo-eugenics scientists and acquire time-travel to reverse history so that the world reverts to a purer age. Unfortunately, those not belonging to the clique will cease to exist, along with all of human civilisation that came after the perceived Golden Age. Needless to say, Jon Pertwee saves the day, but – prehistoric monsters and time-travel aside – the story cleverly taps into the way in which the rural idyll in theory is different to the rural idyll in practice.
The latest manifestation of the concept is the proposed (and already notorious) Garden Bridge in London, a ludicrously expensive folly across the Thames that has the potential to be either a twee tourist attraction or a white elephant in the Millennium Dome league. Heavily promoted by Boris Johnson when still London Mayor as well as his showbiz groupie Joanna Lumley, the Garden Bridge hasn’t even left the drawing-board yet, though this hasn’t prevented millions of tax-payers’ pounds being diverted into the project, regardless of public opposition to it and the impracticalities of such a daydream scheme. What an artist like Capability Brown would have made of it, let alone Margot and Jerry, we will never know.
© The Editor