Thursday, 30 June 2011

'Capability' Brown and the Landscapes of middle England

'Capability' Brown and the Landscapes of middle England – An exhibition at Compton Verney, Warwickshire, 25th June – 2nd October 2011

As an employee of Compton Verney I’d be less than sharp if I were to write an unflattering review about any aspect of the organisation or its work; especially if it were to cover either of the latest exhibitions – that mentioned above, or ‘Stanley Spencer and the English Garden’. Ordinarily, I wouldn’t attempt a review of an exhibition at all, on this occasion however
, the link between the exhibition and my work at Compton encourages me to; Brown having re-designed Compton Verney from 1768. For this review therefore, I’ll be focusing on the exhibition as a grounds manager, rather than from an art critic’s point of view.

As with all periods in history, the yearning for knowledge pushes individuals to constantly search the past in order to understand more about the world we live in. Landscape design, particularly that associated with well know historical figures such as Lancelot Brown hasn’t escaped focused research either. The issue for those wishing to understand Brown and his designs however, is that the man himself left very little written information to explain why he worked as he did, and what his thinking was throughout his career. The reason for this lack of information is most likely due to his focus on the tasks in hand - he packed an awful lot of technical and challenging work into his career, not to mention a good deal of travel and socialising to net new clients. Maybe however, it could have been down to modesty, for he could be forgiven for sitting back to let his handiwork do the talking. It is a statement of our thirst for knowledge, after thousands of acres were graded, planted and groomed to Brown’s plans and instructions; that we still yearn to know more about the man, and we still keep searching for details and stories.

Around two hundred gardens and sites have been improved or manipulated under the guidance of Brown, or should I say – they’ve had their ‘Capabilities’ realised - Please excuse the pun. Even though many of those landscapes have long since disappeared, or at least been diluted by later development, the truth is that many do still survive, and are being restored and maintained by focused individuals who still want very much to understand the motives behind the creator of their gardens. In addition to this growing band of enthusiasts are those who simply enjoy the fruits of Brown’s efforts, and also it seems, those who are seeking to recognise his work as a significant artistic contribution in itself. It is not a moment too soon therefore; that the work of Brown is finally being recognised in the form of an exhibition, at one of England’s finest art galleries, itself at the center of a Brown landscape garden. Lancelot Brown - an artist no less!

Launched on Saturday 25th June, the exhibition has been curated by the director at Compton Verney Dr Steven Parissien, and the director of the landscape and garden history center at University of Bristol, Professor Tim Mowl. Focusing, as the title states on Brownian landscapes in the Midlands region, the exhibition features; Croome Court, Charlecote Park, Combe Abbey, Weston Park and Compton Verney, along with references and material connected with other notable Brown landscapes including Warwick Castle and Blenheim Palace.

The atmospheric gallery rooms draw together maps, plans, documents and illustrations which connect Brown to his Midlands commissions, along with stunning photographic images taken of the landscapes recently. On loan from the National Portrait Gallery, Nathaniel Dance’s 1769 portrait of Brown is the first & most well known of the many paintings, and positioned perfectly to welcome and introduce visitors to his work. Just beyond however, is one of my favourite items, a cornelian intaglio or seal of Brown, mounted in a gold bracelet. Once owned by Henry Holland, Brown’s son-in-law, the seal is based on Nathaniel Dance’s portrait - a cameo sits along side to exhibit the exquisite detail.

I guess that for me, responsible for the care and development of my second Brown landscape, I was looking for answers to all sorts of questions that I’ve pondered over the years. Armed with a basic understanding of Brown’s work, and an un-faulting appreciation for the beauty of his landscapes, I was expecting a great deal from the exhibition, and I certainly wasn’t disappointed. My first view of the exhibition was as a regular staff member on the day of the official opening, and to start the day we were guided through by Steven Parissien. Later that morning, I was to take part in the press viewing also, and was smartly dressed for the special occasion. “Here’s our Mr. Brown!” said one person as I joined some of the other staff members; - I did have brown trousers on at least!

I could be forgiven for viewing the new exhibition through rose-tinted spectacles, but I wouldn’t have been more impressed if Lancelot was there himself to shake my hand! For Brown enthusiasts, there’s plenty of information available, both in the gallery guide and with each exhibit, all narrowed down into concise and bite sized chunks – clear and straight to the point. (If that’s not enough, there’s a new Shire book available in the shop – Capability Brown and the English Garden.)

Segments of the exhibition; Brown and architecture, shaping and viewing the landscape, planting the landscape, the sporting landscape and Brown’s legacy, all attempt to interpret some of the key elements behind the estates and gardens he created. The sporting landscape for instance, shows how the creation of open and closely planted areas allowed gentlemen to hunt more easily on their estates. Gun technology improved throughout the 18th Century, and lighter guns helped more accurate shooting of moving and flying targets - this made hunting much more of a sport. Lancelot didn’t miss this trick and he added coppice plantations and tree shelter belts in his schemes, not only for aesthetics but to assist with the rearing of game birds. The displays bring a focus to this aspect of his landscapes and include two hunting guns; one dating back to the 1770’s which is beautifully decorated but very effective looking.

The exhibits are diverse, of high quality and perfectly demonstrate how varied and challenging Brown’s work must have been. The detail is there; in the maps, the illustrations and engravings, the exhibits and photographs. Many people of course will be new to Brown, and will view the exhibition from an artistic point of view, especially considering the Stanley Spencer exhibition also being staged. I personally feel the exhibition scores highly enough to satisfy here too, the juxtaposition of displays inside, and Brown landscape outside, (viewed conveniently from the windows of the last gallery.) The combination of the two are surely enough to demonstrate the art both within the gallery and outside. Those last windows of the gallery could easily sport an information label, simply saying: [Landscape through glass, Lancelot Brown, 1768 to 74, Sloping lawn, lake, Ice-house coppice, Compton Verney.]

If canvas is more to your taste, there is also an especially good oil painting by Thomas Gainsborough, of George Lucy. Lucy being responsible for luring Brown to nearby Charlecote Park from 1750, and who sat for his portrait in 1760. Map admirers too are treated to some beautifully illustrated estate maps, including an original 1796 estate survey by John Snape of Croome Park, which tells us so much about the attention that Brown lavished on this landscape in particular.

It may be obvious that I am delighted with the outcome of the exhibition. Some elements of the information were known to me, and some were a revelation. I feel that all the ingredients combine beautifully and make a real statement about a man who made a significant contribution towards world art. Confined only to the Midlands landscapes, which were major commissions in themselves, the mind still baulks at the scale of his countrywide commissions and achievements. I work one of his landscapes, tend and explore one of his gardens, and really feel I understand the basics of what he was trying to achieve. I’ve yet to see a Brown garden reach its full potential, but then I have much touring yet to do. I hope art enthusiasts and garden history disciples alike will enjoy visiting this ‘Capability’ Brown exhibition at one of his landscapes; I think it took great foresight and is very well executed. I’ll be visiting repeatedly over the next few months, and I can thoroughly recommend it!

Compton Verney visiting information, click here!

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