Mrs B from Lincoln has written in to ask when people first started to call that canny gardener, Lancelot Brown by his nickname ‘Capability’. She suggests that he only got the soubriquet after his death, which makes it inappropriate to use it for his tercentenary. I say it’s far too good a nickname to lose, no matter what its provenance.
However, one does what one can: in 1779 Walter Spencer Stanhope noted in his diary (20th August): ‘went to Horsforth in the evening, Capability Brown, his son, Beaumont … Rastrick, my uncle and aunt dine with me, went to the Green,’ but the nickname was already public in the August 1774 issue of the London Magazine ‘Richmond gardens now declare the hand that spoilt them; nor is there a person who can recollect the beauty of the lengthened terrace, but censures the innovator – Mr ‘Capability’ Brown’. Then there’s the Eton school-master Tickell writing to Joseph Hill a year earlier, and declaring that ‘Cape Brown’ would soon have cleared out the jet d’eaus at Chantilly.
So the nickname was pretty much a commonplace by the 1770s. More interesting is the date at which the nickname was first used. According to Dorothy Stroud, Capability’s son Lance (baptised 1748) had the nickname ‘Capey’ at Eton, where he was sent to school around 1760, so it’s reasonable to see it alluded to elsewhere in the 1760s – George Mason in 1768 for example: ‘The difficulty attending [modelling the surface of ground] has induced many proprietors to commit the whole of it to artists by profession, whose contracted geniuses (without the least capability of enlargement) have stampt an unmeaning sameness upon half the principal seats in the kingdom’. Good enough for me anyway.