Q + A with Gary Webb, Head of Landscape and Gardens at Compton Verney
What do you think made Capability Brown so special?
I think he was a good all-rounder. He was able to make the landscape useful, so they were more commercially viable. He was able to sell this to his clients, that not only was he improving the estate aesthetically, he was providing something quite useful. I also think it was his success in being able to work with the gentry, with the Aristocracy, the landowners, and right down to those who worked on site, to make these landscapes work, to construct them. He was working with all levels of society, so he must’ve been quite a charmer.
You’ve said previously that Capability Brown has a subtle form of gardening. What does this mean?
It’s really a number of things. It’s a naturalistic approach - there’s lots of curves. I think he did away with lots of straight lines, generally speaking. So the formal landscapes and gardens that were around, he took away those in pursuit of nature or more natural rhythms within the gardens.
So within that, you have nice flowing footpaths, the lawns were brought up to the mansions, the water courses that he put in at many places, he made those serpentine, and he’d make those follow very natural looking courses so they would look like rivers in some cases. And his treatment with the tree planting as well – the exotic trees were put nearer to the house, and more native type trees were moved back into the landscape. The landscape gardens blended very well with their environment.
Capability Brown landscapes have been described as usable. What do you think?
Capability Brown looked at the whole landscape around him, holistically, so looking at making it a landscape that could be farmed. There was stock, sheep, cattle, and deer in some cases. Lakes had opportunity for fishing production, and he put in ice houses and garden buildings.
He introduced and used woodland belts, which they were able to crop timber from for buildings and firewood. And just looking generally, the landscapes could be grazed, so you have the ornamental nature of the cattle and sheep. The landscapes are both good to look at, and very productive.
What’s the best thing about working on a Capability Brown landscape?
It’s mature, so you get to enjoy the trees in their full splendour – you don’t have to wait for them to develop. We’ve also got the little wildlife habitats that have been established over centuries. We’ve got the aesthetic, lovely garden to look at, rich wildlife and flora, so it’s a good place to be all-round. It’s invigorating.