On the anniversary of Lancelot Brown’s death

Lancelot – Capability – Brown is best known as the creator of our current vision of the English landscape, so would it surprise you to know this is where he died?

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It happened on the 6th February 1783, 235 years ago today.  Apparently the night before he’d collapsed on the doorstep of his daughter Bridget Holland’s house in Hertford Street, London while returning after a night out at Lord Coventry’s.

Researching on the Historic England site, Henry and Bridget Holland lived at no 17, although there’s no plaque or general excitement. In fact, it’s now serviced flats, I got some odd looks when I was taking photographs of the doorstep – I think people thought I must have been a private detective! And slap next to a Prezzo.  I like to think of Lancelot Brown nipping there for a meal – it’s obviously a favourite for some locals! 

Jane Brown writes this in her wonderful biography, The Omnipotent Magician:

At the beginning of February he was spending time in town, staying with his daughter Bridget Holland and her family at their house in Hertford Street in Mayfair. It was an ordinary business trip, which enabled him to visit his clients at their London houses; on the Wednesday evening, 5th February, he was dining with Lord Coventry at his house in Piccadilly, and while he was walking the short distance home he collapsed from ‘an apoplexy’ and the next day he died.

His place of death couldn’t have been more different from his birthplace in rural Northumberland, right in the middle of the city, and I think even then full of secret private clubs such as the one now at No 5. And maybe even it was the footmen from General John Burgoyne’s nearby house who helped him home.

At least, he’d have had a view of Hyde Park running across the bottom of Hertford Street, I like to think of him not being too far away from green. His death, not surprisingly, caused a stir, with Horace Walpole wrote to Lady Ossory: “Your Dryads must go into black gloves, Madam. Their father-in-law Lady Nature’s second husband, is dead! Mr Brown dropped down at his own door yesterday.”

(Wouldn’t Horace Walpole been the best tweeter? Complete with exclamation marks!)

Lancelot Brown’s body was taken quietly to Fenstanton in Cambridgeshire to be buried, where he’d been Lord of the Manor. As his will stated, ‘my body I commit to the Earth to be decently buried.’

So here’s a poem to remember him today, based on something his contemporary Richard Owen Cambridge apparently said, which was that he longed to get to heaven before Brown, so he could see it before the great landscape gardener had ‘improved’ it. It’s a ‘mirror’ poem.

Views Reflected
Sarah Salway

By the time it was heaven’s turn,
the formal landscape of England
had changed forever:
a gardener and a duke
working harmoniously together.
Scattered trees,
a serpentine lake,
the ‘gardenless’ garden
painted a new picture –
Brown, nature’s second husband,
moving mountains from his path.

Moving mountains from his path,
Brown, nature’s second husband,
painted a new picture –
the ‘gardenless’ garden,
a serpentine lake,
scattered trees
working harmoniously together.
A gardener and a duke
had changed forever
the formal landscape of England
by the time it was heaven’s turn.

 

A garden and a library….

That’s all you need, according to Cicero, and I’ve just had a joyful residency in both! The Women’s Library at Compton Verney to be precise, looking out at grounds laid out by Capability Brown.

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The project was part of Spreadsheets and Moxie, a year of research and development into professionalism in the arts for women writers which I’m carrying out with fellow writer, Viccy Adams, and which is supported by Arts Council England. We first went to Compton Verney for this back in January, but this month I went back alone for a very good reason – the arrival of Viccy’s beautiful baby, Archer.

I wasn’t really alone though, because of the number of wonderful visitors to the Women’s Library who I cornered to ask for the one book they might recommend – written by a woman. From top left, working clockwise we have – I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith, Tulip Fever by Deborah Moggach, One Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley, The Accidental Tourist by Anne Tyler and The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey. And then there were the recommendations left in our #100Women100Books visitors book.

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The residency was part of the overall year of research and development into professionalism in the arts, Spreadsheets and Moxie, Viccy and I have been working on, and which is supported by Arts Council England. For this, we devised a model project – #100Women100Books – specially for Compton Verney’s Women’s Library. We asked 100 women in our lives, from toddlers to the over-eighties, what book they would recommend to other women now, and why. The resulting list – A Women’s Library for the 21st Century – can be found and downloaded from our website here. It’s fascinating reading, and we’re so pleased how many people are already downloading it. Do let us know if you do, and also leave us YOUR recommendation. You can follow us on Facebook too, or on Twitter using the #100Women100Books hashtag.

The project fitted in well with the Compton Verney Women’s Library too, which has just undergone a splendid restoration, as part of the Unsilencing the Library project. It’s really worth a visit, virtually via their website or in real life! When Viccy and I visited back in January it was a strange experience not least because there were no books. There were bookspines however (above) – a ‘false library’ of what books would have been recommended for women in the 19th century when Georgiana Verney, wife of the reclusive 17th Lord Willoughby de Broke was thought to have created it. She was an enthusiastic champion of women’s education, reading and suffrage, so it was lovely to sit writing in the library and feel her presence. And also to be with other readers, as the Unsilencing the Library team asked different individuals and groups what books they would like to see in the library. There was Emma Watson’s shelf:

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Margo Jefferson’s shelf:IMG_6309

And The Prison Reading Groups selection (I loved the wide range here):IMG_6305 2

Amongst others. And of course, outside the library there were the grounds. Can you imagine the bliss of sitting in this chair, looking up from a book and seeing this view?

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So a last shout out to Gary Webb, who is in charge of Capability Brown’s vision now at Compton Verney. Here he is standing on Capability Brown’s bridge, with the house behind.IMG_6296

And here’s the poem I wrote for #100Women100Books with lines taken from the reasons people gave for picking their own book, and collaging it into just one book!

This book