Designing the English Landscape – A book review

18212_CBD_Jacket.inddCapability Brown: Designing the English Landscape by John Phibbs (Rizzoli New York, $65)

A celebration of England’s greatest gardener, who was born 300 years ago and created country estates of extraordinary sweep and beauty. New photography by Joe Cornish captures the relationship of architecture to nature, and the way that Lancelot “Capability” Brown reshaped landscapes to resemble a pastoral painting by Claude. A country boy, who learned his skills the hard way, he saw “capabilities” everywhere he looked and that is the name by which he is remembered.

The Beauty of the English Garden

No one, before or since, has concealed his artistry so well in placing lawns and trees, lakes and drives to create memorable compositions that seem entirely undesigned. Few records of Brown’s work survive, but the landscapes have matured over the centuries and are even more compelling today than when they were first carved out of farmland and wilderness. John Phibbs is a master of his subject, and he provides a close analysis of fifteen masterworks that include such landmarks as Blenheim Palace and Burghley House, Petworth and Chatsworth. He explains them as a quintessentially English mix of show and practicality, and an expression of liberty—as formality expressed the French love of order and authority. And he emphasizes that the Arcadian vistas had utility, for grass yielded hay, the fuel of a horse-driven economy and the hunt.

Influencing Olmsted

Brown was a major influence on Frederick Law Olmsted, who reinterpreted his ideas a century later in some of America’s greatest parks. And the English estates that were once open only to the guests of their noble owners are now readily accessible to the public, thus ensuring they will be around to delight future generations. In word and image, this book matches Brown’s achievement. It should inspire every landscape designer and encourage the rest of us to hop on the next plane to Britain.—Michael Webb


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