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Capability Brown and the Yorkshire Landscape

Note from Patrick James, Managing Director. June 2016.

I hope that as many of you as possible will be able to make time to go and see the exhibition in Harrogate this summer that celebrates the tercentenary of the birth of Capability Brown. (Noble Prospects: Capability Brown and the Yorkshire Landscape – 25th June – 11th September. Mercer Art Gallery.)

Karen Lynch of the Yorkshire Gardens Trust has curated a brilliant exhibition and written the accompanying catalogue highlighting Capability Brown’s extensive work in Yorkshire. Having seen the exhibition, I would strongly recommend a visit to some of his Yorkshire landscapes first hand.

Many, but not all, are open to the public and the likes of Harewood House, Temple Newsam, Sledmere and Scampston Hall are all very much worth visiting. In most cases, however, Brown’s original layout has inevitably been compromised by additional 19th ,20th and even 21st century layers of design. This is not to say that these layers have necessarily spoilt Brown’s design, it is just, if you are being a purist, it is not that easy to visit a landscape designed by Brown that still closely resembles his original vision.

One place worth trying, however, is Burton Constable near Beverley. It is an unusual Brown site because the detail of his proposals, following no fewer than ten visits between 1769 and 1782, are so well recorded. Brown was a noted draughtsman, and many of his plans can still be seen, but, unlike the obsequious Humphry Repton, he rarely if ever set out an accompanying description of his vision. At Burton Constable, the estate steward, John Raines, minuted each visit, calling them ‘Hints from Mr Brown’. As Karen Lynch notes, ‘there is much that is Brown to see at Burton Constable today’ including a lake, a bridge concealing a dam, ha-has, castellated buildings, clumps, views, vistas and follies.

Unlike the topography at say Harewood or Sledmere, Burton Constable is surrounded by country that is dull and flat. At first glance the ‘capabilities’ of the place would appear to be limited. Not to Brown’s eye, however, and it is why Burton Constable serves as a wonderful example of why he deserves his reputation as a truly great ‘place-maker’ as he called himself.

When asked to explain what it is that I admire so much in Brown’s landscapes, his work at Burton Constable always springs to mind. This was no easy commission and yet the the setting of the house, stables, outbuildings, gardens, park, lake, follies and ‘borrowed views’ is achieved in a way the untrained eye would assume had all occurred naturally. Do also remember when approaching the house through Brown’s park, that there was an economic aspect to the laying out of a park. It was a chance to show off the quality and extent of the owner’s cattle, sheep, deer and horses and many of Brown’s landscapes today suffer from an absence of animation provided by stock.

When works began at Burton Constable, Brown had recommended James Clarke as a foreman. In writing a subsequent reference for Clarke, William Constable, owner of Burton Constable, praised Clarke’s work in ‘having Executed all that was laid down in Mr Brown’s plans’ and summarized the decade of work: ‘Levelling and Uniting Grounds, forming Swells, laying down pieces of Water, making Planatations, and the whole Executive Part of beautifying and finishing a place with most accurate neatness.’*

As I say, I hope you enjoy the exhibition of paintings and drawings in Harrogate, but it is well worth visiting Brown’s original canvases – the landscapes themselves – and in Yorkshire we are spoilt for choice.
* This quote is taken from Karen Lynch’s essay ‘Capability Brown in Yorkshire’ published in the latest edition of the New Arcadian Journal: ‘Yorkshire Capabilities’.