“Moving Earth” Showcases the Development of English Landscape Aesthetic
Amid lightly buzzing tools, handlers carefully reinstalling treasured artworks, and other indications that the Yale Center for British Art was preparing to reopen, Elizabeth Morris, independent curator and Assistant Librarian at the Reference Library and Archives, described her new exhibition, Moving Earth: “Capability” Brown, Humphry Repton, and the Creation of the English Landscape. The display will be on view in the Sterling Memorial Library’s Memorabilia Room from March 7 through June 3, 2016.
Moving Earth focuses on the work of the prolific landscape architect Lancelot “Capability” Brown and his successor, Humphry Repton. Brown was a prominent eighteenth-century architect known for applying comfort and elegance to his clients’ land holdings. Once known by many as “England’s greatest gardener,” he designed over 170 gardens throughout Britain, many of which surrounded the finest estates and country houses. He developed a new method within the English style, “gardenless” designs, which abandoned almost all the remnants of previous formally patterned styles. Croome Court, Blenheim Palace, and Warwick Castle are some of the locations where his work endures. “This year marks the tercentenary of Brown’s birth, making the exhibition a timely celebration of Brown’s achievements,” said Morris.
Brown’s and Repton’s contributions to the English landscape aesthetic have grown into a national achievement that identifies the country with strategically planned and well-manicured gardens. “With large sweeping expanses of lush green fields, groupings of trees, winding paths, and serpentine-shaped rivers and lakes, the English landscape appears as an ideal form of nature; it is, however, an expertly crafted construct,” wrote Morris in her exhibition statement.
The exhibition also considers the development of the English landscape by highlighting architects William Kent and Sir John Vanbrugh, as well as acknowledging the “picturesque controversy,” where the criticisms of scholar Richard Payne Knight, author Uvedale Price, and painter William Gilpin questioned the aesthetic principles of the period. Soon after Brown’s death, Price declared his work “false beauty,” and Knight, equally as hostile, described Brown’s talents as “thin and meagre.” Defending his predecessor’s legacy, Repton wrote to Price: “In like manner, both Mr. Knight and you are in the habits of admiring fine pictures, and both live amidst bold and picturesque scenery: this may have rendered you insensible to the beauty of those milder scenes that have charms for common observers.”
Approximately one hundred objects from the Center are represented in the exhibition—including items from the Reference Library and Archives, and reproductions from the Rare Books and Manuscripts, Prints and Drawings, and Paintings collections—which provide a foundational basis for research into British art, culture, and society. Morris intended for the exhibition to reflect the Center’s commitment to continue providing its extensive resources to the public and to support academic research, even during the building conservation, with the help of cultural partners across the university.
“Through researching and curating this exhibition, I have come to love and appreciate the work and genius of ‘Capability’ Brown. He was a brilliant man with excellent business sense, a strong work ethic, and an undeniable talent for landscape design,” said Morris. The curator will share more about her exhibition in a talk on Friday, April 8, at 3 pm, in the Sterling Memorial Library Lecture Hall, followed by a reception in the Memorabilia Room.
Visit the Center’s Reference Library and Archives, and Study Room, to explore related materials that are not included in this exhibition. An appointment is required until the museum reopens to the public in May 2016. Patrons should e-mail or call each department directly to request a time visit.