In search of Capability Brown

01.07.2016 | category: General

Capability Brown never sat for a portrait bust. In the last in a series of updates, sculptor Jon Edgar explains how he brought Brown to life.

Consideration of the 2016 tercentary of Lancelot Capability Brown’s birth brought an interesting challenge. Brown is long dead, portrayed in several painted works, but never sat for a sculpture.  

Analysing portraits of Brown, it became clear that the viewing angle of the sitter was identical, and there were curious similarities in their make-up. Using Photoshop to overlay the portraits and observe characteristics of both at the same time, even the lights of eyes were identically placed.  But yet these works would have been produced miles apart at different times.

Tracking down the original paintings was the only way that establishing a common link was possible, as whilst computer technology can compare the relative proportions of images, only scrutinising the physical objects yields their true relative size. If they proved to be identical then it made it more likely that the Cosway image was directly take from the Dance, perhaps pricked out into canvas from a paper ‘cartoon’,  just like frescos were made.

A trip to Hampton Court Palace saw the Cosway painting in public for the first time. The distance between the whites of the eyes was 53mm. The National Portrait Gallery’s original Dance portrait was on loan to Twickenham and the same measurement was confirmed different - 58mm! So a hypothesis is quashed, but the Cosway is clearly derived from the earlier Dance.  What is also interesting is that a number of acknowledged works “after” Dance have similar brushwork to the Cosway.

The lack of viewed angles of the head was a problem. One starts to rely on the memory of other heads, to fill in the gaps. A chance encounter brought about a sitting with a living Northumbrian who had similar features to the long-faced Brown which helped the work to a conclusion.

The terracotta is at Stowe House Discovery Centre from 7 July. See the bronze at the London Building Centre, WC1E: Lenses on a Landscape Genius exhibition.

About the author: A series of Jon Edgar’s terracotta heads was exhibited at Yorkshire Sculpture Park in 2013. He is currently working on sittings for The Environment Series Heads - British people who are contributing to the future of the planet in diverse ways. Another strand of work is his large stone sculptures worked on site, by hand, responding to place and involving people. For more, see his website, or read his blog.