By general consensus, the English are good at two things: writing and gardening. This year, and thanks to the double-your-money principle that allows us to celebrate birth- and deathdays equally and in succession, England’s most famous writer, William Shakespeare (1564?–1616), and her most famous gardener, Lancelot “Capability” Brown (1716–1783), are enjoying centennial festivities.

You wouldn’t always think to compare them. Forced, though, into juxtaposition by this accident of dates, some common characteristics emerge. Both were men from modest backgrounds, professionals in a medium where aristocratic practice had set the standard. Each arrived upon an artistic milieu which still looked to Italy and the classical world for validation and ideas and built on its foundations a model of vernacular self-sufficiency. Both are biographically elusive:...

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