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Our favourite landscapes echo our past habitat

My Times column on the Capability Brown tercentenary:

Next year marks the 300th birthday of Lancelot Brown at Kirkharle, in Northumberland, the man who saw “capability” in every landscape and indefatigably transformed England. In his 280 commissions, Capability Brown stamped his mark on some 120,000 acres, tearing out walls, canals, avenues, topiary and terraces to bring open parkland, with grassy tree-topped hills and glimpses of sinuous, serpentine lakes, right up to the ha-has of country houses.

Brown was not the first to design informal and semi-naturalistic landscapes: he followed Charles Bridgeman and William Kent. But he was by far the most prolific and influential. His is a type of landscape that is now imitated in parks all round the world, from Dubai to Sydney to Europe: it’s known as “jardin anglais” and was admired by Catherine the Great and Thomas Jefferson.

Frederick Law Olmsted laid out Central Park in New York in conscious emulation of Brown — as John Nash did with St James’s Park (Hyde Park is by Bridgeman). Golf courses nearly always pay unconscious homage to Brown. There is something deeply pleasing about a view of rolling grassland punctuated with clumps of low-branching trees and glimpses of distant water.

Mountains may have more majesty, forests more fear, deserts more danger, townscapes more detail, fields more fruitfulness, formal gardens more symmetry — but it is the informal English parkland of Capability Brown that you would choose for a picnic, or for a visit with a potential lover. It feels natural.

And yet of course it is wholly contrived. One of Tom Stoppard’s characters explains to another in his play Arcadia, as they contemplate the view of a park from a country house:

BERNARD: Lovely. The real England.

HANNAH: You can stop being silly now, Bernard. English landscape was invented by gardeners imitating foreign painters who were evoking classical authors. The whole thing was brought home in the luggage from the grand tour. Here, look — Capability Brown doing Claude, who was doing Virgil. Arcadia!

Hannah’s right. Claude Lorrain’s paintings of scenes from Virgil were all the rage in the 1730s. By the 1740s, when Brown started work at Stowe under William Kent, prints of 44 of Claude’s landscapes were on sale in London. The landscape at Stourhead (not by Brown), with its Grecian temples seen across lakes, is little more than a copy of Claude’s Aeneas at Delos. Kent’s genius, inspired by Lord Burlington and Alexander Pope, was to supply this craving for classical rural Arcadia.

Brown brought something else to the party. His modern equivalent and a fellow Northumbrian, the landscape architect Patrick James, points out that Brown would have walked to school at Cambo every day across the open landscape of Northumberland and through the park at Wallington, then being remodelled by Sir William Blackett. The land between the Roman wall and the Scottish border where Brown grew up is big-sky country with long views across open, grassy landscapes dotted with clumps of trees, neither hilly nor flat, but ridgy and rolling. It is an evolved, rather than a designed, version of a Capability Brown landscape. So Brown made Arcadia wilder and wider than Kent did, with fewer temples.

But some have argued that there is another step beyond Virgil and the border country to explain Brown’s appeal — back to the Pleistocene savannas of Africa. Gordon Orians, an ecologist, has congealed this idea as the “savanna hypothesis”; that people’s preferred landscapes bear an uncanny similarity to the most welcoming parts of East Africa’s savanna, where humanity arose.

In a Claude painting or a Brown landscape there is a pleasing combination of what the geographer Jay Appleton called “prospect and refuge”: you can see a long way, but you can also hide. There is a long view over grassland, but there are clumps of low-branching trees to hide among (and up), and to supply your needs there are bodies of water and herds of game.

When I first saw an African savanna at the age of ten, something stirred within me. The great open grassland, the flat-topped fever trees by the distant lake, the herd of grazing antelope — did it feel like a Stone Age ancestral home? Our antecedents spent two million years hunting and gathering in such a habitat, compared with just 40,000 in the damp, dark forests of the north, less than 10,000 in fields of corn and a few hundred in streets. It is our natural habitat as a species and it would almost be odd if, somewhere deep in our natures, there were not an evolved tendency to feel at home in it, as monkeys do in trees and fish in water.

In his 2014 book Snakes, Sunrises and Shakespeare; how evolution shapes our loves and fears, Professor Orians notes, for example, that designers of Japanese gardens have selected and pruned trees in such a way that they are more like those of African savannas. He also showed images of African acacia trees to people and asked which ones they preferred. They chose those with low trunk height, canopy layering and wide canopies — ideal for shelter and climbing and reminiscent of Brown’s signature tree, the cedar of Lebanon.

Professor Orians and a colleague also compared Humphry Repton’s “before and after” drawings in his red books. These showed clients how Repton (who was later than Brown) would change their parks. He generally added features like those of desirable savanna: he opened up wider views but planted clumps of trees on hilltops or near water; he depicted herds of cattle, sheep or deer; and, of course, he introduced water features.

In the 1990s two Russian artists, Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid, commissioned opinion polls in many countries to ask people what they wanted to see in a painting — and then painted the results. All over the world people came up with grassland savannas with water, easily-climbed trees, happy people and large animals. Think golf course with fallow deer, or the Brown parks at Petworth and Burghley, Blenheim and Chatsworth, Longleat and Highclere.

The satirist Richard Cambridge joked that he wanted to die before Capability Brown so that he could see heaven before it was “improved”. In 2016 — the date of Brown’s birth is unknown; we have only the date of his baptism, August 30 — I shall raise a glass to a humbly born county boy, who mixed Northumberland with the Serengeti to produce Arcadia and gave us the archetypical English landscape.

By Matt Ridley | Tagged:  rational-optimist  the-times