What a splendid and improving occasion! And what a privilege to be your preacher as we give thanks for the life of Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown, born and baptised 300 years ago and buried in this place in 1783 where he had by then become Lord of the Manor.
Brown got his famous nickname from the way in which he put the potential for improvement to his wealthy patrons, and any preacher surveying a congregation will of course similarly consider that there yet remains some “capability for improvement”… So can the person and the work which we commemorate today also afford some indication of the lines we should be pondering in the development of our own lives? Let’s look at the person and his work in context to give us a start.
The eighteenth century was indeed an age of improvement not just in landscape gardening. A nation weary of political and religious infighting in the Civil War had put those aside in favour of the growth of polite society and commercial endeavour, and – quite frankly – of both making a pile and building one if one could. Enter the famous Mr Brown, and not just him but a thousand others in careers of all kinds making their progress out of the provinces and enjoying the fruits of their endeavour.
Among them was one of my wife Jean’s ancestors, John Walker, who trained as a sea captain alongside James Cook whose ship was of course called the Endeavour, and who like Cook won a fortune if not fame taking coals from Newcastle to London thankfully not trying it the other way round.
Another of Jean’s eighteenth century ancestors – we all have them, it’s just that she’s been collecting them like postage stamps – was one William Jones who progressed from a Welsh inn-keeper’s family via a legal training in London to the governorship of its biggest debtors’ prison, and a manor in Norfolk. (And – say it quietly today – commissioned Repton to make a red book for his garden makeover.) You too will probably have such Whittington-like tales in your own family trees, known to you or unknown, and England soon became the richest nation in the world.
Making gardens was all part of the endeavour, and as England turned its back on absolutist rule and the highly formal gardens that went with it, a more natural layout was preferred, blending formality and informality in the way we now know so well. Nor was the need felt in such enlightened times to fence off the chaos of nature in order to nurture a paradise: self-confidence was burgeoning in the human intellect and ability to take raw nature and perfect it, just as education might take a savage and draw out his nobility.
The first string to my academic bow was the study of language and literature, and I rather like the way in which Brown himself described this work of improvement, this rationalising of what was already before him, as like a grammarian taking the raw material of spoken language and polishing it into proper form: “‘Now there,’ said he, pointing his finger, ‘I make a comma, and there’ pointing to another spot, ‘where a more decided turn is proper, I make a colon; at another part, where an interruption is desirable to break the view, a parenthesis; now a full stop, and then I begin another subject.'”
The drive to perfect Nature was everywhere, with Brown at its forefront, and the poet Richard Owen Cambridge sardonically declared that he hoped to die before Brown so that he could “see heaven before it was ‘improved'”.
But not everything in the garden was rosy. A Brownian landscape might look more natural than nature, but serious engineering lay just under the surface, and villagers in a less than perfect place for Brown’s purposes – like those at Madingley down the road – might find themselves relocated without the option. Nor was every eighteenth century personal progress one of success.
The equally significant Thomas Chippendale died more or less a pauper when his rich clients failed to pay on the nail. And when my own direct ancestor and namesake also made his way south, from Edinburgh in his case to London, he found the estate of the heiress he married snaffled by another branch of the family. His son was reduced from gentleman tailor to dealer in marine stores – what we would now call a rag and bone man – dealing in the old rope from perhaps Captain Walker’s ships – before being thrown into prison for debt, though he was spared the irony of being in the one his fellow ancestor ran.
The camera tends to turn of course to the medal winners, but for each of them there were dozens of also rans and casualties. It isn’t always comfortable to look their way, any more than it is to look at the distraught losers in the Olympics, but if we are to reflect with any moral seriousness on the endeavour of the Capability men, as we might call them, to see nature improved, we have to consider the whole picture.
Eighteenth century thinkers were as aware of this as we are – and their answer was what was called the doctrine of plenitude. Their idea was that an all-powerful, all good God would necessarily create everything that could be created. Anything less would be a deficiency. So by divine providence there was a great chain of being from the Almighty to the louse, all present and correct and in their natural place.
But you like me may not be so easily convinced. Sometimes less is more, particularly when it comes to suffering and downright evil. A modern moral philosopher would point out the need to be able to say in such situations that all the outcomes for the people concerned were good even when we don’t know which of them is going to apply to us; but those who propounded plenitude were confident of their place at the top of the pile and took no thought for the alternative.
In theological terms, the turn from religion to reason had brought with it a move from theism to deism, to belief in God, but in God as the watchmaker who set off the mechanism and not much more, with little wish to talk of sin and redemption.
To quote from a recent study, “Improvement could mean very many different things in different contexts. But it always involved an assumption – foreign to the period before the Civil War, but firmly in the ascendant by the time of Brown – that … anything could be changed by human agency, by the application of knowledge, taste and capital, in ways appropriate to use and character. This was more than the expression of Whig ideology. It was the spirit of times.”
There were of course those who thought differently. John Wesley and the Methodist field-preachers spoke eloquently into the lot of the poorer sort and of grace, repentance and salvation; and they touched the heart in a way quite unlike the heady theorising of an enlightenment philosopher. But this was the sort of enthusiastic religion that worried the power-brokers of the age; and when Wesley applied to Bishop Butler for a licence to preach he was dismissed with the dictum that enthusiasm in religion is a horrible thing, sir, a most horrible thing.
So the challenge we face, I think, as we reflect on Brown’s achievement, is how to celebrate and emulate his endeavour and the very real way in which did bring parts of nature to perfection, while at the same time facing up fairly to the limitations of an eighteenth century approach, and having some sort of strategy if we can to address those too. It’s time to turn very briefly to our bible readings for some further clues. Perhaps they, alongside Brown’s life and work, can point us in the right direction.
We began with Genesis and the Garden of Eden – the first park we might say, but a paradise which is realistic about the need for a sustained moral choice for God and the good if it is to be sustained. Here, at the very beginning of the Bible, is the recognition in story form that humans are moral beings, in relationship with a Creator who sets their moral compasses, but with free will which means they will choose the evil as well as the good, even when they know it to be so – and from which they will need to be saved.
It may have struck you as it struck me that we in the twenty-first century are again experimenting with a society in which such stark religious realitiesas sin and salvation are best kept behind a door marked “private”, and in which public policy is founded on the theory that reason and science will give us constant improvement which enterprise and the market will deliver to all, with a minimum of central government. Back to the eighteenth century we might say. You may also share my suspicion that this experiment has been thoroughly undermined when we see that our best endeavours still lead to environmental catastrophe, and our strong markets still lead to the impoverishment of the poor.
I suggest that the first thing we can learn from Brown the “Christian, Husband, Father, Friend” as well as the genius, is that we need to get to grips again with the moral and spiritual foundations of humanity, as individuals, as families and as communities, before our pride leads back to a fall. The adaptation of the church hall here in Fenstanton for further community use and the generosity which that has inspired are the sort of signs such times require. I had the privilege of blessing it recently and am looking forward to dedicating the Brown window in it at the end of the service today.
Picking up on Brown’s epitaph’s words of husband, father and friend, I slipped in community just now alongside our Christian faith, and the second reading we heard, from 1 Corinthians, makes the same connection between what I might call the vertical axis of our honest dependence on God who alone gives the growth, and the horizontal axis of our dependence on one another – Paul and Apollos, Ray and Robin, John and Mary, Lancelot and Bridget (for that was his faithful wife’s name as we see on his memorial, and I wonder how much of his legacy is hers too). What Paul says is that all the gardeners need to have a common purpose, working together and all benefitting from that work.
As we pick up the pieces after the referendum, and the rather salutary reminder that both the feeling that we are all valued in this country and the desire to belong across ethnicities are not as secure as we had supposed, there is work to be done in rebuilding this horizontal dimension just as there is for the vertical. In what ways I wonder can the community which gather weekly alongside the place where Brown is memorialised build on its building work and be a beacon of such commonality and a sign of such a society – extending the perfected landscape to all? If just a percentage of the extraordinary shared endeavour that has put on the CB300 celebrations here can continue into the future, the beacon will shine.
Finally, and addressing the challenge that both our dimensions deliver in terms of actual achievability, the writer of the Song of Solomon turns us towards love, as Paul would have done too, the virtue without which all attempts at improvement will be in vain. Only if we actually and actively desire to be in a strong and healthy relationship with God and with one another, on a continuing and habitual basis, forming virtue and character, will the grapes blossom, and the fruits be over our doors, as the poetic language of the Song puts it.
Heads and hearts together, enlightenment but enthusiasm too, and the sheer act of will that turns desire into commitment. Brown’s garden for Lord Cobham at Stow offers the choice between the path of virtue and the path of vice. Brown as a man shows us the path to choose, for in the words again of his epitaph, “virtues were his which art’s best powers transcend.” Brown showed us the way, and it is time for us to travel it too.