I’m in England for the next few weeks, visiting a friend before setting out on a tour of English gardens. On the weekend I spent a glorious afternoon walking through a landscape designed and constructed in the 18th century by Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown.
Brown created an estimated 170 landscapes in England, many of which remain. Petworth in Sussex, is one of these, and it shows all of Brown’s characteristic trademarks.
First of these is the broad lawn that sweeps
from the house down to an artificially created lake. This simple feature was one of Brown’s specialties, and it marked a major change from the elaborate parterres that had come before. The lawn looks natural, as if it was always there, but Brown created it, by moving around a lot of earth.
|Grass is the only thing growing on the garden front of Petworth House.
Not only did he flatten the ground in front of the house, he also raised it on one side. A gentle slope stops the eye from wandering and focuses it on what is directly ahead: a long view of lawn, sweeping down to a lake in the distance.
|Grass sweeps from Petworth House down to a lake in the distance.
No plantings clutter the space. Grass comes directly from the base of the house down to water’s edge, where grass and water meet on level ground. This level edge allows you to look across the surface of the water rather than down at it, so that the reflective qualities of the water are enhanced and it more perfectly mirrors the sky.
As he did so often, Brown shaped the lake at Petworth, hiding one end to create a seemingly endless body of water. The effect is magical. In the distance dense plantings make the water appear darker and more mysterious. Something is there beyond the bend, but what? It’s impossible to see, impossible to know.
|Yellow flag iris now blur the boundary between grass and water. They would not have been there in Brown’s day.
On the slope that frames the view, a well-positioned urn marks a destination for both the eye and the foot. From the top, I could look down to the lake or back to the house that sat there in unadorned Baroque solitude.
|A view back to Petworth House, now a National Trust property
The urn also marks a transition from open sunny lawn to shadowy copse. This movement from light to dark is characteristic not only of Brown but of his predecessor, William Kent, who used it to great effect at Rousham, one of my favourite English gardens and one I’ll be visiting again next week with the tour I’m leading.
|The small boy running on the left gives some sense of the size of these ancient trees.
|A gentle slope meets flat ground in a seemingly natural manner.
|The pleasure park lies beyond the stone wall topped with ironwork fence.
|Rhodos flank the Ionic Temple at Petworth House.
|Iron gates guard the entry to Petworth’s private pleasure park.
Whichever view you hold, his impact is clear. Brown created the distinctive curves and contours that became essential features of the English landscape, and that continue to define it today.
|A typical Brownian landscape, with contoured slopes and trees strategically placed