MOST of us are familiar with the idea that some of our best-loved “natural” landscapes are man-made – and many know the name of the man who changed the face of England, but we know little about him.
Lancelot “Capability” Brown was responsible for a revolution in garden and park design which is still admired today. Stowe, Blenheim, Alnwick, Hampton Court, Chatsworth, Burghley, Highclere, Bowood, Prior Park at Bath, Milton Abbey and Sherborne Castle in Dorset … the list goes on and on.
Brown was a prolific, tireless re-inventor of the countryside around some of England’s greatest country houses and castles. But how did a man born to a yeoman farmer on the Kirkharle estate in Northumberland become the garden designer to kings, dukes and the billionaires of his day?
You learn a lot in The Eye-Catcher, a one-man show devised by John Cobb, a Scottish actor and theatre-maker, who is on a short tour of Dorset, with Artsreach, before performances at Brown’s home town of Kirkharle, in August.
Cobb, who trained in Paris with Philippe Gaulier and Monika Pagneux, is a co-founder of two theatre companies, Benchtours (Scotland) and Théâtre Sans Frontières (TSF), a regular performer with Told By An Idiot, and frequent collaborator with the Quebecois director Robert Lepage.
It’s a background that leads you to expect a multi-layered performance, drawing on a wide range of skills, and you won’t be disappointed. Through 60-plus minutes of multiple voices and accents, head-wear changes with wig, tricorn, bonnet and pineapple crown (for George III, “the farmer king”), clever adaptation of props (a feather becomes both a flame and a flamboyant pipe) we follow Lance from playful boy to the man who could set his own appointments with a Duchess (Northumberland, of the famous Percy family,)
Cobb has drawn on incidents from Brown’s life, including his years at Stowe, now one of the National Trust’s greatest landscape gardens, meeting King George III and moving to Wilderness House on the Hampton Court estate, and working for Clive of India, who gave him a budget of £100,000 (roughly £20 million today) to remodel his Claremont house and estate.
He imagines the young Brown playing a game of ogres with his brothers George and John, and the mature Brown, with his beloved wife Biddy, at their homes first in Stowe, then at Hammersmith and finally at Hampton Court, too busy to visit his family for Christmas.
We follow Brown’s story as Cobb builds a picture of an energetic and practical man, who found creative and engineering solutions to everything from moving mature oak trees to creating serpentine lakes.
The Artsreach tour of The Eye-Catcher continues at Broadoak on Wednesday 15th June, Milton Abbey on Thursday 16th and Drimpton on Friday 17th. It will be at Kirkharle in August, and will be on various rural tours in the autumn.
Pictured: A portrait of Capability Brown, the famous Stowe gardens, and John Cobb as Brown.