A Berrington Conversation

John Phibbs

Experts believe that a conversation held at Berrington Hall in Herefordshire was so strongly worded that it impregnated itself in the structure. The tirade of the owner, Edward Harley, and the more measured responses of his architect and place-maker, Lancelot Brown, known as ‘Capability’, have been captured by a new technology, developed by the department of unlikely science at Whatt Hereford University. The technology remains secret, pending patent applications, but we are reliably informed that it involves whelks and a wellington boot. Some parts of the following extracts have required more or less speculative interpretation. These are marked with one, two or, where the speech was indecipherable, three asterisks.

The recording begins with the sound of a door opening:

Ah, Brown. Come in. Sit down. [creaking of furniture] Have you got any idea what you are doing to my reputation sir? Laughing-stock – they are calling me a laughing stock for employing you. Were you drunk, sir, when you scribbled this design for Berrington out for me? In town they’re calling me ‘loony Harley’. Oofy [Uvedale Price, Bart., of Foxley, 1747–1829] could hardly control himself at the club when he described having to climb on the window-sill to see if he could see the lake. The ’pus [Richard Payne Knight, Bart., of Downton Castle, 1750–1824, author of A Discourse on the Worship of Priapus (1786)] was pink with giggles when he tried to describe my front door. Pink! Giggles! Call yourself the King’s gardener? I should have you horse-whipped.
When you’ve leisure, sir, I would be happy to lay my explanation before you.
These are my neighbours, sir, close neighbours. I have to live with them, damn me!
Perhaps you’d care to give me an account of their concerns?
How about these for warmers: Why is the house where it is? Why does it face the way it does? Why is the entrance on the wrong side? Why is the north front more decorated than the south? Then try a few of these: Why have you put your gravel pit – of all places – directly in front of my best windows? Where did you find the gall to park my Triumphal Arch in the stable yard – why isn’t it on a hill or at the front gate, like everyone else’s? Why have you left the Ludlow turnpike right in the middle of my park? In fact you’ve put the bloody thing up on a terrace just in case any of my guests should miss it – and I thought I could trust you to make places private with your belts – but the Moreton Ride is so far down the hill that it doesn’t hide anything, and on the east side the Stockton Ride is completely out of sight – what’s that for? And the garden you’ve given me is only fit for cabbages – where’s my pleasure ground? And where are the deer going to go and why didn’t you run the approach round the west side of the lake so that my guests could get at least one good view and why oh why oh why can’t I see my lake from my windows? Have you got any idea how much I’ve spent? [the sound of sobbing]
Sir, I have been place-making for nigh on 30 years and have seldom failed to give satisfaction. My education was a plain one, and I would never care to contend with Mr. Price or Sir Richard. I have, however, a story of Rothbury Mart that gave my father a good deal of pleasure. My master, Sir William Loraine, was an enthusiast for improvement at Kirkharle, as you’ll know. He was among the first to plough with horses on the light soils there, despite being much laughed at for it by his neighbours. So when he took a pair of four-year olds to the mart, he knew he’d be mocked and would get no takers. He decided on that account to disguise them as oxen, with cattle skins and horns.
Am I really to sit here and listen to this rubbish? Answer my questions, man. [groaning sounds]
Sir, Mr. Price and Sir Richard are bound to mock. You’re an in-comer, you’re city money, you’re Sir Andrew Freeport, you represent everything they have chosen to despise. No mere adoption of their ways will establish you in the county. One might though bring them to terms in the way that Sir William did. He drew out the mockery of his friends for breeding such poor cattle, but once he had thrown off their disguises and put them to work, he showed that his horses could be more than failed oxen. In the same way I have made you a landscape that looks as my landscapes are supposed to look – there is the house, there is the grass slope running down and the water, but it fails at every point as a ‘Brown’, because I have actually built something different. Now I can show you that it surpasses everything your neighbours have asked of landscape without abandoning my own principles.

At this point the conversation moved on to the iniquities of education, particularly its dissemination among garden boys in the northern counties. However, the following gloss has been put on this extract in two posts, which we reprint here by kind permission of The Brown Advisor (http://thebrownadvisor.com/).

147: What is so grand about Berrington?

300 frequently asked questions about Brown, your queries answered, copyright The Brown Advisor.

In earlier posts, such as notes 31 and 58, the Brown Advisor has endeavoured to separate out variety, greatness and extent, suggesting that these qualities should be held in balance. Islands, as the poet Shenstone remarked, give beauty, if the water be adequate; but lessen grandeur through variety – and surely he borrowed the thought from the great Spectator himself, Joseph Addison, who remarked that ‘there is generally in Nature something more Grand and August, than what we meet with in the Curiosities of Art’. But now I am asked, by Mr. S of Leominster, whether there is really anything grand about Berrington. The question is a difficult one for a Herefordshire man, since that county is the home of the ardent picturesque, and for such people ‘grand’ has a meaning that is close to ‘sublime’, while whatever else Berrington may be, it is emphatically not sublime. But might I put it to Mr. S that Berrington is still grand in Addison’s sense. The lake is not visible from the house, nor is the London Approach brought round the lake as it might be, because the landscape is to unfold piece by piece, almost by accident, with no hint of ‘the Curiosities of Art’. So the north front with its pediment is more decorated than the south simply because the north front needs a little more decoration to give it an even chance against the south, with its splendid view south to the industries of Leominster. Everything about the position of the house is a little skew-whiff because its compositions are to be subordinated to Nature.

As William Combe put it: ‘Where Nature is grand, improve her grandeur, not by adding extraneous decorations, but by removing obstructions. Where a scene is, in itself, lovely, very little is necessary to give it all due advantage, which undergoes no variety of cultivation.’

We should not think the less of Berrington if it continually confounds our expectations that it should behave like other, earlier, of Brown’s landscapes. I fear Mr. S that the fault lies in our own preconceptions of what landscape is.

148: Is Berrington a work of the imagination?

300 frequently asked questions about Brown, your queries answered, copyright The Brown Advisor.

Mr. S of Leominster has on occasion been mistaken for a badger, but Berrington he has known for what it is for well over 20 years. In his correspondence therefore he goes on to ask how much one should rely on the imagination for an understanding of the place. In many posts, such as notes 29 and 30, I have mentioned the role that the imagination has to play in the appreciation of Brown’s landscape. Never is this role more prominent than at Berrington. I remember that on my first visit a few decades ago I chanced to ask a member of staff where I should go in order to get a good view of the lake. She took me from room to room in an increasing kerfuffle, calling on other staff as she did so, somewhat ruefully to discover that, although she had worked there for many years, she had never noticed that the lake is, to all intents and purposes, invisible from the house. In short, her imagination, and that of the other members of staff, had been played on by Brown, who had so related house and lake as to convince them that they must be intervisible even though they weren’t.

Brown, as it seems to me, once he had learnt to play the imagination in this fashion, was immediately released to make his landscapes more complex: our imaginations tell us that Berrington is simple and coherent, Brown therefore does not trouble to make it simple and coherent. In fact he makes it complex, incoherent and more picturesque than Uvedale Price – but still we are persuaded to take it for granted as harmonious, gentle, easy and smooth. Such is the master-piece that is Berrington. Complex, yes, a Chinese box, yes, but no more complex and no more a Chinese box than a late quartet of Beethoven’s – and no more to be despised as ‘academic’ just because we cannot immediately understand it.

Throughout 2016 John Phibbs is leading a series of Capability Brown masterclasses, to be held at some of his finest landscapes across the country. For further details, please contact Gilly Kitching of Inspiration Events on 0207 370 4646 or at info@inspirationevents.com. Details can also be found at www.johnphibbs.uk.

Berrington Hall lake
View towards the lake at Berrington Hall

Triumphal Arch
The Triumphal Arch