I wonder if it is something to be proud of: that one moved a whole village out of the way to make room for one’s 1000-acre garden?
If you’re going to landscape a great seat of the nobility, why let a few peasants get in the way? Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown helped many of the noblemen of England recreate their surroundings with derring-do hitherto unattempted.
Before Brown formal gardens had been the thing: big flat geometric decorations populated by box hedges and walkways, which would stretch out impressively to lend grandeur to a nobleman’s backyard.
Brown saw things differently. He wanted to create ideal England: a beautifully arranged landscape which would please a painter’s eye. And he would stop at little to get it.
This was an earth mover of a gardener: he created undulating vistas with a perfectly placed copse here, a bush there. Poet William Cowper wrote of the man: “The omnipotent magician, Brown, appears.He speaks. The lake in front becomes a lawn , Woods vanish, hills subside, and valleys rise.”
He literally remodelled the landscape according to what he saw as ideal England.
Jonathan Swift’s friend, Richard Owen Cambridge made the driest of remarks, remarked that he hoped to die before Brown: so that he might see heaven before it was “improved.”
Brown did it for many country houses: not least that old seat of the Winchester Bishops, Highclere Castle.
Highclere. Ring a bell? It is the seat of the Carnarvons, those incorrigible Egyptologists, whose love of the fashionable ideal does not stop there.
For though the Bishops of Winchester had owned a mediaeval palace on the site since the eighth century; though it was recorded in the Domesday Book; and though the Carnarvons had owned the building since 1679: yet still, the great family were not content with the weight of bona fide time-worn history on the site.
The two hill forts, tumuli and ancient field systems were not enough to hold back Brown’s progress; and the mansion itself was to fall into the path of refurbishment.
For the Carnarvons opted to ditch the perfect proportions of the classical mansion in favour of a piece of earnest pastiche designed by the man who built the new parliament: Sir Charles Barry.
Not England as it really was, exactly: rather ideal England as we would like it to be. Barry supervised a complete remodelling and rebuilding of Highclere Castle in 1839-42, using bath stone and that strange notion, “Jacobethan” style.
To you and I: gothic. Wildly romantic. Incongruous in its Brownian surroundings.
The interior drips theatre. It is a latter-day interpretation of what an Elizabethan or Jacobean house might be. So that both house and gardens seem to me to be very like those old Western movie sets where reality is only as strong as the walls which are built to keep reality in check.
Ironic, really: because Highclere has become a movie set in every sense of the word. The world has turned its eyes to follow a fictional Yorkshire dynasty, the Earl of Grantham and his entourage, in the critically acclaimed Downton Abbey.
The cast needs no introduction: Earl Robert and his wife Cora; Lady Edith, Lady Mary, Lady Sybil; the redoubtable Countess. Julian Fellowes and Gareth Neame created a well-crafted period drama with plotlines which captured the hearts-and ratings- of an international audience.
The costumes are sumptuous, the script crackles with wit and originality; the characters weave in and out of each other’s lives under the expert tutelage of their scriptwriters.
They are as perfect, and as ideal as one of Brown’s landscapes or Barry’s architectural masterpieces.
And as stylised.
But that’s entertainment. Just as Hugh Walpole’s odd little house at Strawberry Hill has become a masterpiece in the smoking-hut of time, so have the works of Barry and Brown.
Sure, they obliterated historical truths – and indeed, barged whole villages out of their way- in the name of an idealised beauty: but they sure are easy on the eye.
I have a choice: I can sit there, all uptight about nouveau choices which robbed us of whole tranches of history in the name of good taste.
Or: if I can’t get in a time machine and browbeat them, perhaps I should join them.
And so, as soon as I have finished writing this post, I shall be booking my ticket to see Highclere Castle when it opens briefly to the public in early April.
Or should I say: I shall book a ticket to Downton Abbey?
Picture source here