Moving Heaven and Earth

Words by:
Yusef Sayed
Featured in:
July 2016

Steffie Shields’ passion for the landscapes of Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown has been reflected in her articles for Lincolnshire Life magazine. Her new book Moving Heaven and Earth sees the gardening writer drawing on many years of research to provide a thorough overview of Brown’s life and work.
Published to coincide with this year’s Brown tercentenary celebrations, the book is the result of a twenty-five-year fascination that has seen Shields travel the country, exploring hundreds of Brown’s landscapes on foot. Developing an interest in photography in tandem with her appreciation for Brown’s innovations, Shields includes a wealth of her own pictures in the book.

It is all too easy to settle the eye on a pleasing arrangement of building, river, grassland and trees – whether it be at Blenheim or Stowe – and forget that what captivates the viewer is the result of substantial engineering, land removal, drainage and planting; that the scenery that appears so idyllic and undisturbed by man in Britain, nevertheless belies a massive organisation of labour and a multitude of skills. It is one thing to appreciate an artistic sensibility applied to such a grand canvas as the surrounding land itself, but a fuller sense of the factors that typically shaped such work make Brown’s achievements all the more remarkable.

Throughout this book, Shields is attentive to not only the aesthetics that Brown and his clients considered, but the practical problems involved in their undertakings. Ha-has and cascades aimed at problem solving as well as visual effects. Not only was Brown’s engineering knowledge required to creatively and effectively manage the water around properties, and prevent flooding. Knowledge of architecture, trees, plants and history also shaped every decision of his various projects – Shields discusses both the use of the Lebanon cedar and Scots pines, only two examples among many, with clear depth of knowledge. Brown’s personality, too, had to be such that he could enjoy congenial working relations with labourers, landowners and even royalty – Brown became Master Gardener to King George III at Hampton Court Palace.

As might be expected from such a longheld interest in Brown’s work, Shields’ writing is sparing in its criticism. The author also takes the opportunity to counter commonplace putdowns of Brown’s talents. Still, it is unlikely that one could remain unimpressed by Brown’s achievements, not least by virtue of the number of projects. The amount of landscape designs that Brown realised, largely under his entire oversight, becomes the more estimable as Shields continues to document one commission after another, in all corners of the country. The details that Shields fills in for us about the circumstances of each, and the size of many of these operations, makes the final subtlety of many of those prospects all the more surprising – such that, as Shields confirms, it can be difficult to certify Brown’s signature today.

Known for his gently undulating lawns, serpentine rivers and meticulous placement of trees, it still takes a perceptive onlooker to spot the characteristics that really make Brown’s work stand out. Aiding the reader, Shields includes informative captioning and even some added arrows on some of the photographs – being careful not to entirely spoil the imagery – to detail the marks of Brown’s input. The book’s coffee table style allows copious large pictures, although some of the archival images used do lack clarity. But this is made up for in the volume of information about the work behind these landscapes, as well as Shields’ encouragement to the reader to get out and explore these locations in person.

Analogies abound with Brown’s artistry, including one enthusiastic description of him by a German aristocrat as the ‘Shakespeare of gardening.’ Brown did, coincidentally, work closely with playwright David Garrick to help create a Shakespeare tribute. And then there are the obvious comparisons with painting. But for this book, the most apt analogy, which came from Brown himself, in a discussion with Hannah More, was to writing; with trees placed as a comma or colon might be, so that the viewer might learn to ‘read’ the landscape. With Shields’ book one is not only reading to learn about the remarkable working life of ‘Capabililty’ Brown, but also learning to read the landscapes whose features he so decisively shaped.

There are opportunities to see lasting reminders of Brown’s work around Lincolnshire, with the county featuring numerous times in Shields’ book, from early work at Grimsthorpe to architectural developments at Burghley, about which Shields presented a new theory in our March issue.

As celebrations continue in the coming months to mark 300 years since Brown’s birth, Shields has provided us with a most useful guide with which to encounter and appreciate the beauty of those landscapes where they remain for us to enjoy them today.
Moving Heaven and Earth is published by Unicorn Publishing Group, and is available now at a price of £30 plus postage and packaging from the shop at

Steffie Shields has helped to curate an exhibition ‘Lenses on a Landscape Genius – Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown (1716-1783)’ which is on show at The Building Centre, Gallery Two, Store Street, London WC1E 7BT until 29th July. Shields will also be talking about ‘Capability’ Brown on 1st September for The Friends of the Old Hall, Gainsborough.

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