‘Capability Now’ at historic Orleans House Gallery…

Art and auctions, Exhibitions, Paintings and Sculpture, People and Places — By on February 19, 2016 at 1:06 AM
Christine Byron with As Perennial as the Grass

Christine Byron with As Perennial as the Grass

‘Capability Now’ at historic Orleans House Gallery creates a landscape for artwork old and new

By James Brewer

Contemporary artists are ‘meeting’ the 18th century landscape architect Capability Brown at an outstanding exhibition at Orleans House Gallery, the historic venue close by the Thames at Twickenham.

It combines brilliantly the notion of telling with pictures and artefacts the story of Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown – 2016 is the tercentenary of the birth of the great man – and inviting selected British artists to offer their modern interpretations of his tradition.

Bust of Capability Brown, commissioned by Haddonstone Ltd, alongside 1773 portrait by Nathaniel Dance.

Bust of Capability Brown, commissioned by Haddonstone Ltd, alongside 1773 portrait by Nathaniel Dance.

Heritage, horticultural and many other organisations are ploughing resources into scores of events around England to commemorate the 300th anniversary, but the Capability Now celebration at Orleans House will surely rank as one of the most engaging.

Capability’s master, George III, has been pejoratively termed the mad king (his ailment in fact might have been dementia or bipolar disorder), but his was a stroke of genius to retain the services of Brown for so long, having In 1764 appointed him Chief Gardener at Hampton Court Palace. The only madness of King George from this perspective was his delight in the natural, open vistas favoured by Capability.

It is appropriate that the borough of Richmond-upon-Thames is to the fore in Capability fever. Long-reigning King George ruled from Hampton Court and spent much time at Kew Palace (his father George II had kept his mistress, Henrietta Howard, in comfort at nearly Marble Hill House). Capability conjured up idyllic, pastoral scenes for the residents of country manors. He went for sweeping, open landscapes of sloping lawns and ornamental stretches of water.

Linocuts by Luna North, with Cloud Chasing in foreground.

Linocuts by Luna North, with Cloud Chasing in foreground.

His magic persists. He exerts a huge impact on artistic endeavour today, near and far.

Witness the personal debt to the heritage of Capability in the oeuvre of established contemporary artist Christine Byron, who lives in the borough. She says: “My inspiration from this amazing artist-gardener comes from the bold simplicity of his wide open spaces.

“By obliterating so much fuss and bother in the landscape, he takes us back to a pastoral peace of flowing, powerful tranquillity. Nature speaks for herself.  His tools are the earth itself, swathes of green, water and sky.”

The ground floor of Orleans House is devoted to historical material and societal context in relation to Capability. In the slim upper gallery are lined the new pieces, including one of the vigorously painted abstracts for which Christine is noted. This is an ambitious mixed media (mainly acrylic) array of wooden panels, 10 of them square-ish, with a larger upright in the centre, and entitled As Perennial as the Grass. She said that the composition was “about the heart as the centre of the body and about unconditional love being ‘as perennial as the grass.’”

Christine, who is involved in painting, sculpture, print, installation and film production, has a strong background in education and teaching, and is a proponent of colour and Reiki therapies. She is “preoccupied with the mystery of existence, with spirit, myth and symbol, and with celebrating and exploring nature and the power of colour and its interaction with human emotion and well being.”

Young visitors sketch Capability’s well travelled horse.

Young visitors sketch Capability’s well travelled horse.

She has a close interest in the work of JMW Turner, another of the great artists associated with Richmond and Twickenham, to the extent that she has run a Paint Like Turner watercolour master-class in collaboration with the Turner’s House Trust.

Welcoming guests to the private view for Capability Now, Rachel Tranter, head of arts services for Richmond Council, paid tribute to the curator of the show, Ricky Pound, an independent tour guide and lecturer and former manager of Chiswick House and Marble Hill House for English Heritage. She praised the contemporary artists who had made a great contribution to the project. There would be more news soon, she said, about festival events at Kew, Strawberry Hill, Hampton Court and Syon House.

Ricky Pound said that Capability Brown had been responsible for more than 265 of the finest Georgian parks and gardens.  “He was a hard worker, a businessman, and his success has made a massive contribution to this country.”

The robust variety of technique of the current artists is underscored at the Orleans House show. Reflecting growing interest in gallery circles and among the public in the craft, printmaker Luna North shows hand-pressed linocuts entitled Cloud Chasing and Blowing in the Wind. Luna, who lives in a converted railway station house near Exmoor in Devon, says that her prints, collages and paintings are inspired by the “deep breath of the British landscape.”  She says that she weaves the rhythm of the weather, animal life (such as stags and rabbits) “and nature’s song” of all seasons and weather into the patterns, detail and colour of her studies.

Venetia Norris with Radiating History.

Venetia Norris with Radiating History.

Luna spends a month at a time in her studio designing and proofing each print she makes. Her CV includes a BA (Hons) Fine Art degree from Falmouth School of Art,

Erica Coulehan, who was shortlisted for the National Open Art Competition 2015, presents her energetic work Transformation in mixed media (oil, graphite, and acrylic) on paper.  As a fan of garden design, her approach to this work was sparked by contrasting “how Capability Brown transformed the formal gardens of the past by allowing the landscape to flow and seamlessly become part of the natural landscape.” Erica adds: “He redefined the way we view the English garden. He wasn’t without his critics at the time, but we now accept his designs as being part of the natural landscape.”

Venetia Norris, a London artist enjoying increasing success, has contributed one of her distinctive works based on interpretations of plant motifs Radiating History (exquisitely combining graphite, paint and wire on paper), her precept being that “everything living has a unique shape or form”

Venetia’s intensive programme for 2016 includes a return in March 2016 to complete her fellowship at Ballinglen Arts Foundation, County Mayo, Ireland – an inspiring place where, she says, the harsh Atlantic winds sculpt the landscape.

Entering Orleans House, visitors are greeted by the National Gallery’s 1773 oil on canvas portrait of Brown by Nathaniel Dance, and beside it a bust of Brown “made from a unique form of cast limestone which has a surface texture similar to Portland stone.” The bust, said to be the only one of Brown, was commissioned by Haddonstone, a Northampton-based producer of garden and architectural stonework, which is offering copies for sale.

The text to Capability Now says that it illustrates Brown’s vast contribution to the development of the English landscape garden at a local and national level: a style of gardening characterised by its informal and naturalistic appearance, as opposed to the ordered, symmetrical, and geometric gardens that came before.

The renowned Octagon at Orleans House.

The renowned Octagon at Orleans House.

Born in 1716, Lancelot Brown was brought up in Northumberland, later moving to Buckinghamshire where he assumed responsibility for architectural and landscaping works at Stowe. In 1751, he moved to Hammersmith, where he established himself as an independent landscape architect and undertook many commissions, including Petworth House in West Sussex, Alnwick Castle in Northumberland, and Chatsworth House, Derbyshire. This made him the most fashionable designer in the country and by the 1760s he was known as Capability, after his habit of referring to the “great capabilities” of the properties he surveyed.

On his royal appointment in 1764 as Chief Gardner at Hampton Court Palace, he moved to Wilderness House, Hampton Court, where he remained until his death in 1783. Wilderness House, which is within the walls of the palace, dates from around 1700 and is listed Grade II – it was the official home of the Palace’s head gardeners until 1881.

King George asked Capability to put the emphasis on natural groves, glades and undulating forms, a complete contrast to nearby Kew which was mostly flat.

In 1765, under instruction from the monarch, Brown began work on a plan for alterations to Richmond Gardens, although little remains of his work at Richmond. The exhibition tells how among other projects he assisted the Shakespearian actor David Garrick with his temple to the Bard at his Hampton home, and worked on a 10-year scheme for Blenheim Palace, where he created his most celebrated landscape.

Brown suffered from asthma all his life, and his constant travel, much of it by horse, further eroded his health.

With Capability, there was a feeling for infrastructure going well beyond pretty gardens and parkland. He planted woods and built farms linked by carriage drives miles from any main house he might serve.

The Capability Brown Trust website says that although his work is continually reassessed, every landscape gardener and landscape architect since, both in Britain and across the developed world has been influenced in one way or another by him. Such are the enduring qualities of his work that more than 150 of the landscapes with which he is associated remain worth seeing today.

A welcome from members of Orleans House team.

A welcome from members of Orleans House team.

The Orleans House exhibition makes clear that Brown had his opponents, who included the initially friendly William Chambers. The latter visited Canton while working for the Swedish East India Company, which led him to become an expert in Chinese architecture, gardens and porcelain, and influenced his work at Kew Gardens.

Orleans House has a rich history, as the successor to a property demolished in 1910 which was in its glory from the 18th century, the most famous resident being Louis Philippe Duc d’Orleans, (later King of France) who rented the place during exile. The last private owners were the family of William Cunard, the shipping magnate. Cunard died in 1906 and his widow continued to live in the house for nine years.

The baroque Octagon room, which was designed by James Gibbs, is the most familiar feature to strollers along the Thames path. The main gallery houses temporary exhibitions, attracting more than 56, 000 visitors a year. Adjacent is the Stables Gallery in 19th century buildings and which stages contemporary and community exhibitions.

Orleans House Gallery and Octagon will be closed for 12 months from August 2016 to allow substantial rebuilding of the house including a new section based on the pattern of the north wing that was demolished a century ago. The Stables Gallery, education centre and café will remain open during the works.

On a national basis, the Capability Brown Festival is managed by the Landscape Institute on behalf of the Festival Partnership. It has been funded by a £911, 100 grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund with the wider project said to be worth in the region of £1.7m. Much of this represents matching funding, and funding in kind, from the Festival’s partners and supporters.

Capability Now is at Orleans House Gallery, Riverside, Twickenham, Middlesex, until June 19 2016. The exhibition will move to the Museum of Richmond from July 1 to October 29.

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