Enriching the status of public landscapes

Last year's Capability Brown Festival was the first stage in an enrichment of the status of public gardens and landscapes as they are increasingly seen as multifunctional spaces, rather than "just that nice bit outside", according to its director.

Chatsworth: site featured in Capability Brown Festival - image: Morguefile
Chatsworth: site featured in Capability Brown Festival - image: Morguefile

Ceryl Evans, who remains as Capability Brown Festival director until the end of March, will spend the next few months collating and analysing data on its impact. She said early indications show it had a significant impact on both visitor numbers and engagement, with anecdotal reports of more people visiting specifically for the gardens and landscapes. National Trust head of gardens Mike Calnan agreed it had boosted visitor numbers.

More importantly, perhaps, Evans said the festival's wide-ranging programme of nearly 500 events and more than 60 exhibitions in the 250 Brownian landscapes encouraged an emerging view of "landscapes as entertainment" as well as allowing a fuller interpretation of the sites.

Unusual events that encouraged new groups of people to visit Brownian gardens included an urban poetry slam at Croome, refugees discussing the landscape at Chatsworth and using Wi-Fi hubs at Petworth to broadcast hyperlocal interactive websites showing information and images about the pre-Brownian landscape to those exploring the grounds, something that "may be the future" for landscape interpretation", Evans suggested.

Still ongoing is Genius Loci at Berrington, a year-long artistic residency that culminates in a twilight closing ceremony "celebrating Brown's ingenious design and paying homage to the workforce who made his vision a reality". It uses music, lighting, fire and pyrotechnics. Other lighting events at Syon and Compton Verney extended the lifespan and earning potential of the gardens, "getting people to look at a landscape from a different angle", said Evans.

The festival helped Chatsworth House secure an £80,000 Heritage Lottery Fund grant to build a landscape interpretation centre, one of the first to treat the landscape this way, she added. "In the house they can tell you where the teaspoons came from but outside there is minimal information given. Some people have started to tell the story about the gardeners, how much work went into it."

She compared this to when the National Trust started opening up its kitchens, and telling the "behind the scenes" story of the lives of staff. "It's a step change in the way you talk about sites. It's not just talking about the house and the landscape as that nice bit outside. One of the challenges we had in setting up the festival is that sites are often led by the house, not the landscape.

"You have to convince the marketing department that the landscape is saleable. It helped in a way that raising the profile of the landscape as something that's a serious historical consideration and that you could start to shape your programming around it. Our approach has been to push the envelope a little bit. Having that permission sometimes to experiment is really good."

Evans said there is "very anecdotal" evidence of people local to the gardens finding or rediscovering these great venues on their doorstops, with the significant help of more than 1,600 pieces of media coverage. "We've had huge press interest. In a sense it's humanised it. We're hoping this will be the first salvo in a longer-term process of getting historic landscapes recognised as something of interest to the wider public. Every site that's been involved has had its profile raised."

The primary aim of the festival - to raise awareness of Brown and his work - has been a success, she added. "It would be nice if we have made Capability Brown cool. I think in a way he's not just some stuffy bloke from the 18th century wearing a wig. There were sparks of personality there. He would easily be a TV gardener today. Hopefully we succeeded in making him a bit more human - the sort of bloke you'd be happy to have a chat with."

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