The unknowable Capability Brown
HAVE a story about Capability Brown. When I was a teenager, I lived in Northumberland at Kirkharle, the village in which Brown was born. Actually, the village has disappeared almost completely, now reduced to two farms, some estate cottages and a wing of Kirkharle Hall (the rest was demolished).
We lived in what was called Kirkharle Manor, but was really the old vicarage and people would venture down the road to see the little church of St Wilfrid’s. I enjoyed going to welcome them and would show them the parish baptismal register, which revealed a fact that people seemed not to know: Lancelot Brown had a twin sister.
Unfortunately, my knowledge of his life was very limited and he was actually born in 1716, whereas the twins were born in 1707 and were clearly different children. However, I sometimes wonder how many people still think that Capability Brown was a twin.
We were very proud of our local boy made good. We knew for certain that he had landscaped every estate for miles around before he went south to make his fortune. The avenues that led to the Browneswinburnes’ house at Capheaton, we said, were particularly interesting because he’d planted them before he got the hang of this landscape idea of his. And Wallington, if only the National Trust realised it, was entirely surrounded by one of his masterpieces. As for Kirkharle itself, Brown had planted all the clumps of beech trees when he came back to visit his old mother.
IAlas, all such stories were but legends. We were all very ignorant of the life and work of our village hero and, in 1966, the 250th anniversary of his birth passed without commemoration.
How different are the jamborees that celebrate his 300th anniversary this year. It was time for me to go back, I decided, to see how things have changed. The Kirkharle estate has belonged to the Anderson family since the early 1800s. Last month, I called on John Anderson, who inherited it in 1971 and has turned it into a model of stewardship and sustainability.
In about 1980, when sorting through his grandfather’s papers, John chanced upon a plan by Brown to construct a serpentine lake in the Kirkharle parkland. In her excellent new book, Capability Brown and his Landscape Gardens (Pavilion, £20), Sarah Rutherford dates it to about 1770. The work was never begun, but the discovery fired John’s imagination until, eventually, he saw an opportunity to carry it out.
The first scoop of earth was taken in 2009 and the total cost was about £150,000, but digging a lake is not as costly as one might suppose: the most expensive task was constructing an all-weather track around it. Large oaks and similar plantings completed the pastoral scene and wildflower meadows, notoriously difficult to sustain, have been established fairly successfully. Public access is free from dawn to dusk.
However, the really interesting thing about the lake is that it looks just as all Brown’s landscapes did when first dug and planted. We’re used to thinking of his parks all fully grown and mature. Kirkharle still has the rawness of newness. The banks of the lake (actually two lakes connected by a cascade) need more reinforcement and more trees must be planted this winter.
John has a very clear vision of how it will look 100 years hence. I studied the plans while he explained how the lake and the plantings relate to what remains of Kirkharle Hall and to the wider landscape. It wasn’t easy to project the whole design far into the future, but it occurred to me that Brown’s clients must have wrestled with the same problem—how would it look when their great-grandchildren came into their inheritance?
I realised that their confidence in Brown’s ability to deliver a work of art was a measure both of his greatness and of the landowners’ certainty that their descendants would one day inherit their estates. Which makes a visit to Kirkharle—the newest of Brown’s landscapes—all the more fascinating to do now.
And the baptismal register? Well, the original is now in the Northumberland Archives, but John told me that the real Lancelot Brown was baptised in St Wilfrid’s on August 30, 1716. Last weekend, the church was filled to capacity with his admirers, celebrating his birth 300 years ago.
Charles Quest-ritson wrote the RHS Encyclopedia of Roses
There are legends aplenty about Brown’s involvement with landscapes such as Wallington, close to his Northumbrian birthplace of Kirkharle—but they must, at the very least, have provided inspiration