It’s William Shakespeare’s 450th Birthday celebration, and therefore another golden opportunity to talk about Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown. But what is the connection you may ask? Brown was born a clear century after Shakespeare passed away!
There is of course an early 19th century quote from the German Prince Hermann, Fürst von Pückler-Muskau, describing Lancelot as ‘the Shakespeare of Gardening’. It would appear that the Prince was well placed to make such a comment, having travelled widely, studying and writing about parks and gardens. He also turned his hand to creating vast landscapes, such as Muskau Park, but all that said; it is a linked reference only.
Taking a different route to establish that connection could be via a Brownian landscape that is near Shakespeare’s very own Stratford-Upon-Avon. At Charlecote for example, there was parkland landscaped by Lancelot at some stage during the 1750s and 1760s. Brown’s work there was significant, where even the banks of the fast flowing Avon were tamed. Brown would surely have heard the legend of the young Shakespeare, who was evidently caught poaching on the Charlecote estate. William was brought before the resident magistrate for justice, who happened to be Sir Thomas Lucy – the owner of Charlecote no less.
So we have a quote, and a nearby landscape, but what else do we have to connect our man Brown with the world’s foremost playwright and poet?
It’s inferred that Lancelot was good friends with a certain David Garrick, who was born just a year after Brown himself (1717-1779). Garrick – an actor, theatre manager and playwright of considerable standing, is said to have been in regular contact with Brown, who it’s believed advised over the layout of his garden. Garrick was inspired by the work of William Shakespeare in no small measure, and he appears through his efforts to have built a new audience for Shakespeare, re-aligning acting methods in the process.
After moving to London and rising in society, Garrick developed one particular property called Hampton Villa, later to be re-named Garrick’s Villa; a home that was separated from its wonderful Thames side garden by a road. Robert Adam, a frequent collaborator with Brown, was employed to modernise the Villa, also building an Orangery in the process.
The Shakespeare Temple, c1755 was built within the garden as a significant monument to the man, being furnished with many artifacts in celebration of him. Inside and opposite the entrance Garrick commissioned a full scale sculpture of Shakespeare by French sculptor Louis-François Roubiliac, and Garrick’s friend Horace Walpole showed his approval by offering a motto for its façade. Garrick took pride in his garden and temple, commissioning no other than Johann Zoffany to paint two pictures specifically. I would suggest taking a close look at the standing gentleman in the image below, in Brown attire nearest the table… Does it remind you of anyone?
The link between Garrick and Shakespeare is clear, if one of personal interest and very public appreciation. The link between Brown and Shakespeare however, although detached, is clearly Garrick, for it is hard to see how our ‘Shakespeare of Gardening’ could not have been infused with Garrick’s consuming admiration for Shakespeare.
I have to admit that I wasn’t the first to trip over this connection, and I’m grateful to a friend for leading my modest research in this direction – I hope that in due course much more information will surface on this subject! If you’re intrigued however and would like to learn some more, I would suggest looking to a weekend course that Steffie Shields will be leading on behalf of the University of Cambridge, titled; ‘Capability’ Brown: the Shakespeare of garden arts. It would be a perfect opportunity to delve deeper!
Sources, courses and further reading: