Cant and Capability at Kew Gardens

Pictured: the Sackler Crossing

Melissa Candy, Library Graduate Trainee (as at October 2016) at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, wrote their page Merlin, hermits and follies, from which the following is extracted. My last post to mention William Kent was from Hampton Court Palace on 24/5/19.

“William Kent

Proving there are many elements to a landscape garden, the architect William Kent (1685–1748) had little horticultural knowledge or technical skill but was visionary in his approach to garden design. He was born William Cant but changed his surname when he was 24 whilst working as an artist in Italy. Deciding to focus on design instead of painting, he returned to England with Lord Burlington and began work on both interior and landscape design.

He established the ‘natural’ style of the English landscape garden that was later developed and used on a larger scale by ‘Capability’ Brown, although Kent’s style included more ‘gothick’ and dramatic elements. In Kensington Gardens, Kent even planted dead trees to create his vision! Kent began to work on many projects at the same time, including Stour Park, Chiswick House and Alexander Pope’s garden. His work in these would later influence his designs when he was employed by Queen Caroline at Richmond Gardens to create buildings “to be stumbled upon as if by accident”. The biggest and most famous at the time were the Hermitage and Merlin’s Cave.

Capability Brown and the end of ‘fairie-land’

In the 1760s, Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown was eager for the prestige of a royal appointment when he was hired to landscape Richmond Gardens. Although his idea of a natural landscape was similar to William Kent’s, Brown was less enamoured with follies and did not hesitate to destroy all of Kent’s (the hermitage was left as a ruin but Merlin’s Cave was sold for scrap), as well as many of Chamber’s buildings. Only six of Chamber’s buildings survive today (the Ruined Arch, the Chinese Pagoda, the Orangery, and three of his Temples), but nearly all have been relocated or rebuilt.

Brown’s opposition to the formal style of garden was shared by many commentators of the day, and can be seen in the sarcastic Heroic Epistle to Sir William Chambers by William Mason:

“Come then, prolific Art, and with thee bring
The charms that rife from thy exhaustless spring;
To Richmond come, for fee, untutor’d Brown
Destroys those wonders which were once they own.
Lo, from his melon-ground the peasant slave
Has rudely rushe’d, and levell’d Merlin’s Cave;
Knock’d down the waxen Wizzard, seiz’d his wand,
Transform’d to lawn what late was Fairy land;
And marr’d, wit impious hand, each sweet design
Of Stephen Duck, and good sweet Caroline.”

– An heroic epistle to Sir William Chambers, Knight. William Mason (1774), lines 53-62**

Today, the legacy of both Kent and Brown is commemorated in the Sackler Crossing – a bridge across the lake designed to represent the two styles of their landscape design.”

**Mason published his satire anonymously. Professor Richard Quaintance writes in Theme Park Landscapes (Vol 20) (2002):

“(Chambers’s) Kew designs and his polemical feintings about “Chinese gardens,” although widely admired and followed on the Continent and by connoisseurs such as Lord Kames and Edmund Burke, were in England openly disparaged by anti-Tory poets William Mason and William Wordsworth. A dozen years after his Kew was completed, its merger with Richmond (Gardens) and new work there by Capability Brown would discompose the imperial logo I describe.”.

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