Capability Brown and Africa… did you really say Africa?

/Users/davidmarsh/Library/Group Containers/ Brown - but where is he?photo courtesy of Nicholas Marsh

Capability Brown – but standing where? photo courtesy Nicholas Marsh

I’ve just returned from a month in southern Africa and was bowled over by the range of plants and landscapes that I encountered in the western Cape and Namibia.  I can’t stop enthusing about what I saw but wondered how on earth I could legitimately fit that excitement into a blog that’s about historic parks and gardens in Britain.

Then I hit upon the answer.  I’d link it to everyone’s man of the moment – Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown.

Up until now I’ve rather avoided writing much about him because of his ubiquity. You can’t open a serious newspaper or magazine this year without someone famous mentioning Brown and his genius, Brown and his influence on land sculpture or art or the English imagination, or almost anything else for that matter.  Up until now, because I couldn’t think of anything original to say, I thought probably best to keep my mouth shut….until a couple of my fellow P&G trustees suggested I ought at least to try. After all we at P&G are going to play host to the Capability Brown Festival archive when the tercentenary is over.

So here goes. I’m going to write about the links between Capability Brown and Africa. Will such a harebrained scheme work? Can I find 1500/20 words of wisdom to inform or amuse? Well read on to find out…

detail from Unknown artist, an Unknown Man, perhaps Charles Goring of Wiston (1744), out Shooting with his Servant, ca. 1765, oil on canvas, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection (Richard Caspole, Yale Center for British Art)

detail from  Unknown man  out shooting with his servant, ca. 1765, oil on canvas, Yale Center for British Art,

I can see puzzled faces thinking Brown and Africa – and of course the idea is absurd. Brown never went there. He used no African trees in his plantings schemes, could have drawn no inspiration from its sweeping landscapes and wide horizons,and apart from encountering a few of its enslaved population in the grand houses he visited on his travels around the country, probably hardly gave the continent a second thought unless perhaps when he saw newly imported plants in the orangeries and stove houses of his patrons.

[How am I doing? 309 words so far …mmmm better press on]

Lancelot in Cape Town photo courtesy of Nicholas marsh

Lancelot in Cape Town
photo courtesy of Nicholas marsh

So is this post going to be about some newly discovered postcard from him that shows he had nipped over to Cape Town on a Club 18-30 holiday when everyone else thought he was visiting  Kirkharle or Stowe, so proving that  Brownian ‘clumps’, shelter belts and serpentine lakes are pale imitations of the Karoo or rhino-filled waterholes? Not really I’m afraid. Not even I would try to stretch your credulity that far, not even on April Fools Day, which is when this post was planned for – I just didn’t manage to get it finished in time[altho I wish I had!]

There two interesting things that do, however, link Brown to Africa. One is the relatively straightforward  temporal overlap  between the opening up of the Cape for botanizing and Brown’s career and projects and I’m going to deal with that in another post soon.  The other is much more difficult  theoretical question: why do Brownian landscapes have such powerful aesthetic appeal, and where does it come from?


The formal and informal landscape at Harewood….…

What was going on that drove the landed aristocracy to pay for the transformation of huge swathes of the English landscape?  There’s the economic argument of course: formal gardens are expensive to maintain, and while landscaped parks a la Brown are expensive to build they are, in comparison, very cheap to maintain and they can be used for productive agriculture and forestry.


We also know the standard  history of the evolution of the landscape park which was , beautifully summed up by Tom Stoppard in Arcadia.  He has a character says: “English landscape was invented by gardeners imitating foreign painters who were evoking classical authors. The whole thing was brought home in the luggage from the grand tour. Here, look — Capability Brown doing Claude, who was doing Virgil. Arcadia!”

Northumbrian scenery nr Wooller  

Pastures and woodland near Kirkharle, © Copyright Mike Quinn, 2007 and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

Pastures and woodland near Kirkharle, © Copyright Mike Quinn, 2007 and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

Of course there’s slightly more to it than that.  Brown was conditioned by his upbringing and childhood surroundings, as we all are. His native Northumbria “is big-sky country with long views across open, grassy landscapes dotted with clumps of trees, neither hilly nor flat, but ridgy and rolling.” [Matt Ridley, Times, 28th Dec 2015] Brown walked through it everyday, how could he not be affected?

Put these three things – economics, the Grand Tour, and love of one’s native patch – together and perhaps you are heading for an explanation of the changes that took place  BUT not necessarily an explanation of why there is an  overwhelming and innate sense that the English landscape park feels natural, right and proper to so many people, and not just in Britain. After all we don’t really feel the same innate love of  things like Georgian carpets, fashion or cooking . So where does the love of the park landscape come from?

One man at least thinks he has the answer. He is Gordon Orians and I was recently introduced to a book of his that I’d never normally even have glanced at let alone picked up and looked at seriously.  Its called  Snakes, Sunrises and Shakespeare – well would you have picked it up either? Nor was the subtitle that appealing either: How Evolution shapes Our Loves and Fears.  At first I though, oh no another off-the-wall explanation of the meaning of life, but then saw that Orians is emeritus Professor of Biology at the University of Washington in Seattle so maybe not quite so oddball after all.  So I did what most people do these days and ‘googled’ him. I would usually shie away a bit from terms like behavioural ecology/ environmental psychology but reading interviews with him quite a few things seemed to make sense, although its quite difficult to precis for the purposes of this blog!

And hang on in because Capability Brown does feature in his thinking, albeit a way down the line.

Most of Orian’s early career research was about habitat selection in birds, but from there he began to wonder if similar principles applied to human choice of habitats as well.  Let’s start with a quote from a recent interview with him:

Skip this  next bit  if you want – but maybe instead take a look at the some of 2 minute videos he has made to accompany the book which explain the key factors in his argument. Links below…

.”The basic premise of both evolutionary psychology and behavioral ecology is that emotions, which are the prime motivators of behavior, coevolve with fitness.  That is, organisms evolve to prefer to do things that improve their survival and reproductive success and to avoid doing things that have the opposite effects.  This premise must, of course, be tested. It has! Such coevolution is obvious with respect to sex and food.  Both  eating and sexual intimacy are highly rewarding; one does not need elaborate tests to know that those of our ancestors that found neither activity rewarding would have been under-represented genetically in subsequent generations. The same argument applies to habitat selection.  Those of our ancestors who elected to settle in ecologically poorer environments would have survived and reproduced less well than those who settled in better habitats.”

The full interview can be found at:

screenshot screenshotThere are a series of very short video interviews with Orians  …

Stages of Habitat Selection

Choosing Places To Live

In the book Orians analyses a whole series of human environmental preferences.  For example most humans have a marked preference to be in ‘green’ natural surroundings whenever possible rather with a harder ‘greyer’ urban one. There is a universal appeal for having water in the immediate environment – think prices for properties with river views, or hotel  costs for rooms overlooking the sea.  Most humans also prefer living somewhere that has long distance views rather merely across to a blank wall or the view of a block of  flats.

screenshot screenshotOf course I can hear you mutter that’s all pretty obvious and not exactly news, but explanations of exactly why this should be the case are relatively recent. Jay Appleton, Professor of Geography at Hull set the groundwork in The Experience of Landscape in 1975.  He posited the idea that certain landscapes were preferred  because they offered  “prospect and refuge”: you can see a long way, but you can also hide away from potential dangers.  Others contributed to the debate until in 1992 Gordon Orians and a colleague Judith Heerwagen developed a broad hypothesis about the kind of landscape that most humans would find naturally pleasurable.

Links to the short videos:

Applications of Prospect/Refuge Theory

More Applications of Prospect/Refuge Theory



This ideal landscape would have large areas of open low-growing grassy spaces interspersed with groups of trees and thickets of bushes. There would be obvious signs of water, vital for survival, either within sight or suggested. There would be at least one open view into the far distance if not the horizon. There would be animals and birds living there, and there would be a variety of plants of all kinds, including fruiting and flowering ones.

Wimpole, National Trust

The Wimpole landscape,
National Trust

Does this sound at all familiar? I’d suggest that it bears a very strong resemblance to almost any Brownian landscape. As Laura Mayer points out in her article on our database ‘A Most Pleasing Serenity’: The Aesthetics of Lancelot Brown, his ” approach evolved, in his own words, from ‘all the elegance and all the comforts that mankind wants in the Country’… It included open expanses of turf, scattered with individual trees and tree clumps, surrounded by a perimeter belt, and ornamented with serpentine water and perhaps a smattering of garden buildings. Circuit drives wove in and out of the wooded shelter belt… providing visitors with a series of constantly changing scenes.”

Capability Brown’s 1782 plan for the grounds at Heveningham Hall, which lay unimplemented and forgotten for 200 years. Image from

Capability Brown’s 1782 plan for the grounds at Heveningham Hall,                                              . Image from

So does that mean that Orians thinks that the ideal landscape originated in the 18th English park?  Of course not, in fact rather the reverse. His hypothesis is that the ideal landscape had a lot  in common with the savannas and woodlands of East Africa where much of early human evolution is thought to have occurred, and that over the millennia this has become part of the human psyche, so ingrained and widespread, that its origins are completely obscured. This theory has become known as  “the Savanna Hypothesis.”

If you want to read Orian & Heerwagen’s original piece it’s in Barkow, Cosmides, & Tooby, (Eds), The adapted mind:Evolutionary psychology and the generation of culture. New York, Oxford University Press 1992]

from Summer & Summit, Cross-National Rankings of Tree Shapes [full reference below]

from Summer & Summit, Cross-National Rankings of Tree Shapes [full reference below]

Of course Orians theories are not without their critics: actuallyplenty of them. But its all a bit complex and theoretical to go into in detail for a blog on garden history, but if you want to know more about the counter-arguments just google “Savannah Theory” or “Savannah Hypothesis” and be prepared to spend a few hours sorting out the jargon and academic debates.

from Summer & Summit, Cross-National Rankings of Tree Shapes [full reference below]

from Summer & Summit, Cross-National Rankings of Tree Shapes [full reference below]

However each part of Orian’s  argument has apparently been tested in various studies.  Perhaps the most intriguing from a garden point of view  was the preference shown by people in cross-cultural studies when given a choice of tree shape: it was the acacia from the savannah than proved most popular rather than the oak, palm, pine or eucalyptus.  Then, when offered a choice of shapes within the acacia family it was low trunk height,  and wide, layered canopies that were selected. Why?

Those who support the Savannah hypothesis argue its because such trees are easier to hide in, provide better shelter and  still offer long distance views across surrounding land.  There were no African acacias in 18th Britain but, as it happens those same shape and style preferences,  are also surprisingly reminiscent of  what must surely be Brown’s signature tree: the cedar of Lebanon.


[For more , actually rather overwhelmingly more, detail a good starting point is  Summer & Summit, Cross-National Rankings of Tree Shapes, in Ecological Psychology, Vol.8 (4) 1996, pp. 327-341]

America’s Most Wanted from the People’s Choice series, 1994, Komar and Melamid - See more at:

America’s Most Wanted from the People’s Choice series, 1994, Komar and Melamid – See more at:

Another interesting supporting argument comes from the evidence of a visual study carried out by two Russian artists, Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid in the 1990s. This was designed to study the artistic preferences of people in ten countries.  Almost without exception, the most-wanted painting was a landscape with water, people, and animals.  The project has much much mocked – and probably rightly so when you read deeper into what they were doing,   [eg see NYTimes articles at:

BUT there are a few underlying truths…for it did reveal one stunning fact. People in very different cultures around the world not only preferred the same general type of picture: a landscape with trees and grassy open areas, water, dotted with human figures, and animals but more remarkable still from Kenya to Iceland and China they preferred landscapes of a fairly uniform type.  Now go back to picture, take away  the people, and replace the deer with antelopes or zebras  and maybe the landscape could pass for one of the more mountainous areas of East Africa,

folios 14v-15r (overlay down)

Humphry Repton, 1752-1818. Vinters in Kent, a seat of James Whatman Esqr., 1797. folios 14v-15r (overlay down),

Now think of the transformations effected by Brown on any of his great parks or the ‘befores’ and ‘afters’ in a Repton Red Book. Repton adds a herd of cows, opens up views, introduces water and plants clumps of trees, in other words making the landscape he is working on more  like the ideal of Orian’s theory.

 Repton, Humphry, 1752-1818. Vinters in Kent, a seat of James Whatman Esqr., 1797. folios 14v-15r (overlay down),

Humphry Repton, 1752-1818. Vinters in Kent, a seat of James Whatman Esqr., 1797. folios 14v-15r (overlay up),

A giraffe basking in the sunshine at Longleat Safari Park in Wiltshire - not quite African weather though!

A giraffe basking in the sunshine at Longleat Safari Park in Wiltshire – not quite African weather though!

I could go on, but I won’t because I’ve already gone well past my usual word limit …. but  even if the whole thing strikes you as a little unbelievable it still makes you ponder on two  questions… why are these landscapes so innately popular across the world?  And why do Brown landscapes make good safari parks?   Laura Mayer has promised another article about how novel Brown’s style was, and significantly and where it came from. I wonder if she will include Africa as a possible inmate inspiration?


Lancelot at work in the garden at Franschoek & doing a pretty good job. Photo courtesy of Nicholas Marsh


Lancelot on the terrace at Frranschoek admiring the distant prospect and the shelter belt…and waiting to present his bill? Photo courtesy of Nicholas Marsh

Whatever  you think and whatever the outcome of the debate about the sacannah theory,  when the celebrations come to a head at the end of August on Brown’s 300th birthday [ok baptism day] like Matt Ridley “I shall raise a glass to a humbly born county boy, who mixed Northumberland with the Serengeti to produce Arcadia and gave us the archetypical English landscape.”







About The Gardens Trust

Email - Website -
This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Capability Brown and Africa… did you really say Africa?

  1. cboot says:

    I have, for a long time (well, since I first saw them forty+ years ago), felt that the lake at Longleat is immeasurably improved by the hippos and sea-lions in the water and the gorillas on the island. Ok so that may not have sea-lions on the savannah, but I think I know what i mean. I really approve the rhinos browsing the ‘Brownian’ grasslands.

  2. Great piece, David! Really enjoyed it. I’ve read a bit about the Savannah Theory and about tree shape preferences. Love that you linked it to Brownian landscape parks.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.