Capability Brown

I studied landscape design while my children were babies. It was such a strange field of study, so completely opposite from my interests and skills, it was almost as if I had been tricked into taking the diploma at all. I hadn’t. Mike had studied landscape construction, and I have a natural eye for design, so I thought it would be a logical career for me— we would be a regular entrepreneurial power couple, I’d design and he’d build.

I hadn’t taken into account two important factors. Firstly, my complete inability to understand any sort of measurement. I would call it a borderline disability, but that seems overly dramatic. I remember sitting in several night courses, holding my architect scale and being completely at a loss as to how I was supposed to use the infernal thing, even after two years of study. I mean, what the hell is two and three eighths anyway? Still, don’t know, still don’t want to.

The main reason I should not have given myself to that field of study was the fact that I just didn’t care about it. I don’t care one bit about your garden. I have an appreciation for a beautiful outdoor space, and I can tell you exactly why the design is working or not, but honestly, I don’t want to make it beautiful myself. It’s not important to me, and never will be.

All those years of study— such a waste. I got very little practical value out of earning my Landscape Design diploma. I did develop a love of bark though, so not a complete waste. It’s not important how or why I began being fascinated by tree bark, I’ll just say that when I drive along the side of the road, I notice bark, not plant, variations. It’s a weird side effect of not paying attention to what everyone else was so fascinated by. Bored minds find pleasure in the strangest places.

The one area of studying design that did fascinate me was landscape history. Of course, stories about landscaping would excite me. I wish I had have picked up on my predilection earlier on in my life. But then, I would never have learned about, Capability Brown. Lancelot was his Christian name, but he was famous for telling his clients that their estates had great ‘capability’ for improvement. The slogan stuck.

I won’t go into the ins and outs of, Brown’s career (it’s fascinating, google it), but this morning his story came to mind when considering how I should write an ending to a story that has been tormenting me all weekend.

Capability is famous for having changed the English landscape into what it is known for today. When you imagine English landscapes, you imagine undulating lawns that go right up to the house, groupings of trees; clusters seemingly growing on their own accord off the side of the house, or down by the road’s edge. And then there are the solitary large specimens, Oakes or Yews just plopped down in the middle of a field. You’ll also picture serpentine lakes or oddly shaped ponds. These are the pictures you imagine when you think of a natural English landscape, right? Completely natural? Nope. Capability Brown designed it all. All of it. Before Brown, the English landscape was intrinsically formal— edges and patterns and pleached trees, the evidence that nature had been tamed. You had either forests or formal gardens, nothing in between.

Capability’s design style imitated nature so closely, that it was said that his work got ‘lost’ in it (nature, that is). There was much criticism of his work after he died: it did not offer enough grandeur, not enough drama, people said.

In my opinion, Capability Brown is the perfect example of an artist. He is the designer who is so skilled, so talented, that his very precise, very purposeful design, is invisible to those who are not looking for it. And it has stood the test of time. His design work is what you imagine when you think, ‘beautiful English countryside’. Sure, formal gardens are beautiful and have their place, but they’re not what you think of when you think, ‘natural beauty’.

It is the same with the art of writing. Everyone can learn to write well: You can learn literary techniques, use correct grammar, and stylise your work in order to stand out.

But a great storyteller is the writer whose craft is hidden. Their work is the tale that stays with you for weeks and weeks after you’ve read it. It’s the story that flowed through your consciousness, uninterrupted by form, and in the end, you feel like you’ve been told. No frills, just simple narrative. Beautiful.

Easy reading is not easy writing, that’s what I’m discovering. This morning I was reminded of Capability Brown when faced with some of my own overly-designed, stuffy work. I guess I’ll start today by taking a note from Mr Brown’s book:

“Your work has the ‘capability’ for much improvement, Natalie”.

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