The challenge of immortalising Brown was recently brought up by Peter Bate, Sustrans Area Manager for Beds, Herts and Milton Keynes. He had needed to find out what Capability Brown looked like and how tall he was for a portrait bench statue on the National Cycle Network near Luton Hoo. This, he believes, is the only extant statue depicting Capability Brown and is conveyed as a pierced silhouette in Corten steel.
His brief in 2012 was to come up with characters with a connection to the site and route and then source images that could be used as the basis for the statues. The designs were developed by Katy Hallet, the then Sustrans Director of Art & the Travelling Landscape.
Peter noted: “It was rather difficult to find out anything about Capability Brown’s appearance apart from the NPG portrait. I specifically needed to find out his height, as the statues are life size, and his style of dress. The NPG portrait is head & torso only so I also had to find something for the bottom half! In the end two pictures were blended together. What was of great value was guidance from Jane Brown, author of the Brown biography ‘The Omnipotent Magician’. I eventually decided on a height of 1.8m based on historic accounts of Capability Brown looking William Pitt in the eye”.
Capability Brown designed the River Lea lakes on the valley bottom and the landscape on the other side of the valley, all part of the Luton Hoo estate. Finding out his likely height and style of dress was the most difficult part of the project. The other characters depict Eric Morecambe who lived in Harpenden (the route connects Luton & Harpenden) and used to go bird watching in the area, and the Sea Scout celebrates the long-established Sea Scout troop based on the shore of the Lea lakes.
I rather like the incongruity of it all. These sculptures of course can only be ‘read’ in two planes rather than in the round, but are simple and bold and incite the viewer to question. The artistic goal for Brown is somewhat different from my own – but a fine contrast.
Sustrans’ Portrait Bench series is a national social history project that celebrates uniqueness of location. More information here.