"It must have felt a bit bleak when it was finished," I remarked, staring out of the window at the enormous Cedars of Lebanon.
"Hmm," agreed a fellow visitor, "they wouldn't have been able to transplant big trees like nowadays."
This year is, of course, the 300th anniversary of Lancelot 'Capability' Brown's birth and we were admiring the grounds of Compton Verney, Warwickshire, where, as part of the celebrations around the country, they are restoring features that existed in Brown's original design.
Already, sinuous paths have been reinstated...
...the Ice House has been restored...
...and later in the year, Brown's Grade I-listed chapel (which replaced the medieval church he dismissed from the lakeside) will be re-opened after extensive restoration.
They're taking the long view in more ways than one, as the avenue he carved out, connecting the rising land on the horizon to the front view of the house with its then newly opened-up courtyard and chapel, is already partially replanted, with negotiations under way with the farmer who uses an adjoining field to complete the lines of trees. Dr Steven Parissien, Director, has described the Heritage Lottery Fund-supported Park Restoration Project as "the most important capital programme taking place during the tricentennial year".
Not everything will be as Brown envisaged. Tall Wellingtonias, planted later, pierce the skyline and break the vista from the house but are here to stay.
"They don't harm the view," said Gary Webb, Head of Landscape and Gardens, "unless you put on your Capability Brown hat."
And Brown's landscapes weren't exactly wildlife-friendly. In the pursuit of perfection, dead trees and branches would have been removed and it's unlikely that the bullrushes now decorating the lake's edge would have been tolerated. Today, the Wilderness area includes a dipping platform and bird hide.
The bit you won't be interested in*
Following in the steps of William Kent, who had returned to England decades before with his head stuffed full of the Renaissance landscapes he'd seen in galleries and the desire to reproduce them on the land, Brown went a step further - to create landscapes that were markedly English. At at time when a distinct English character was being created in other areas of the arts too (theatre, for example) at over 200 estates he virtually obliterated the past, sweeping away formal flowerbeds, avenues radiating from the house, parterres, small lakes and a causeway. (Am I the only one who wishes more of these earlier schemes remained?)
Instead, he presented his patron with an idealised version of the surrounding country, planting cedars, tulip trees and London planes nearer the house, blending them into what was already there, so it was difficult to see where the natural landscape began. He created views over hidden ha-has to distant shelter belts of trees. "It was a trick of Brown's," said Gary, "to put trees on the horizon."
He majored on native trees and created sweeping pastures in a landscape that, not only was ideal for hunting, shooting and carriage-driving, but gave the landowner farmland and lakes providing income and food.
No one can say he wasn't successful; think of an English landscape, I'd say, and think of Capability Brown.
Quintessential Englishness exhibited
In addition to the work on the grounds, Compton Verney has given over a room to looking at what Brown created and what he replaced. It includes some nifty acetate overlays to hold up in front of the windows for a better idea of "before" and "after" views, and this modern bronze portrait head:
Current Exhibitions at Compton Verney
Who else is inextricably woven into the fabric of Englishness? Well, there's Shakespeare (celebrating a venerable 400th anniversary this year). As Capability Brown was creating the English landscape, Shakespeare had already played an important part in growing nationalism. Compton Verney's current headline exhibition, Shakespeare in Art - Tempest, Tyrants and Tragedy, looks at how art has responded to his plays since the 18th Century.
Appropriately, it's been designed by Stephen Brimson Lewis, Director of Design for the Royal Shakespeare Company. His theatrical touches give it real character. John Singer Sargent's Ellen Terry as Lady MacBeth is foot-lit and visitors walk a sloping floor (a stage or a ship's deck?) past images of The Tempest.
Amongst old favourites, such as Fuseli's Weird Sisters, there are some truly startling moments, such as the 3D installation, Ophelia's Ghost, from the award-winning studio of Kristin and Davy McGuire...
...and the pared-down classicism of 1912 set designs by Ellen Terry's son, Edward Gordon Craig.
The exhibits have been chosen particularly for their strong emotional response to Shakespearean scenes. However, would Shakespeare have quite the same impact today, if it weren't for the third subject in the limelight at Compton Verney?
Boydell's Vision - The Shakespeare Gallery in the 18th Century
John Boydell, famous for his Gallery on Pall Mall, open 1789-1804, commissioned leading artists to paint gigantic scenes from Shakespeare's plays. Rosie Dias, curator of the Boydell's Vision, the pendant exhibition to Shakespeare in Art, said:
Boydell contributed to releasing Shakespeare into the public sphere and gave the public a sense of ownership that it hadn't had before.
He encouraged debate and criticism of the art, even having Miranda's face changed in one of the pictures because it was deemed too ugly by visitors; he forbade portraits of actual actors in the scenes, so moving the spotlight from the players to the characters and ensuring the pictures stepped away from theatrical representation to more literary and emotional responses. Voltaire had criticised Shakespeare for not adhering to the principles of classical drama; Boydell underlined his Englishness with attention to the plays' humour and sentimentality. We can safely say that it's no coincidence that the French Revolution was in full spate. Dias said of Boydell's Gallery:
It introduced a democratic conception of art, contrasting it with contemporary art theories regarding appreciation of fine arts as contingent upon class and education.
Surely this was the subtext: No need of a Frenchie revolution here, thank you. We're far more advanced!
Shakespeare and Capability Brown combined
Pleasingly Shakespeare and Compton Verney are entwined by more than their shared contributions to ideology. In 1968 that most Arcadian of plays, A Midsummer Night's Dream, was filmed in the most English landscape of Compton Verney.
After seeing the exhibition and walking the grounds, a more fitting setting is hard to imagine.
And those trees we mentioned at the beginning? Well, the agricultural revolution was well under way when Capability Brown created his landscapes, and new machinery meant that it was possible to transplant quite large mature trees. Later on our tour, Gary pointed out the likely height of a Brown-transplanted tree. It looked around 20 feet.
Schedule your visit for Park Life!, the Georgian weekend on 25-26 June, and you'll see a reconstruction of the machinery used by Capability Brown to move his trees. The exhibitions run until 19th June.
*Ceryl Evans is director of Capability Brown Festival 2016. Interviewed for ProLandscaper this month, she said, "You've got a period of about 150 years in which Brown falls that no one really knows much about. So there's no point trying to talk about Capability Brown in terms of historical period; no one is interested in that." She's a social history curator and a mediaevalist, so hardly anti-history, but personally I suspect that you, like me, find her comments unfathomable.
Past exhibitons at Compton Verney: