We are embarked on a mighty enterprise, to wrest the reputation of one of the great men of the world from that thing worse than neglect, which is familiarity. And what do I have to face? Mrs W from Nether Lamport, who takes for granted my endorsement of her potty idea that that happy man, Capability Brown, took up gardening because soil is brown, and now wonders if his surveyor Jonathan Spyers took up surveying because it enabled him to spy. There are bigger questions to ask about Spyers, here are a few of them:
1 how good a surveyor was he, and did it matter? He got the hill at Himley in the wrong place, so Brown’s clump is drawn in the wrong place, but it’s alright in real life – I mean there are the trees, and they are on top of the hill.
2 what did Brown do with the bloody maps anyway? – because they’re pretty useless and if de la Rochefoucauld was right ‘Le Brun … had so quick and sure an eye for the country that after riding for an hour he would conceive the design for a whole park, and that afterwards half a day was enough for him to mark it out on the ground’, then Brown spent his time galloping about, pointing at things. So where was the Spyers survey when he needed it, with one hand on the reins and the other gesticulating, and it probably raining anyway? And how did Brown remember where he wanted the trees put when he got back to the office? How did he work out where the water would go when Spyers doesn’t seem to have taken levels? – and how did Spyers know where to stop his survey?
3 was it more like the way William Smith describes working with Webb and Davenport for Warren Hastings at Daylesford, ‘attending the gouty great man as he sat on his horse (with a livery servant behind him) hammering the stakes which marked out the ground for planting’? Was it closer to the way Repton worked, going down to the site for a preliminary visit and working out what needed doing before any surveying got done? Should we read George Jackson’s bill for surveying Aske in September 1769 in this way? Jackson explained that he was charging for ‘Surveying and Planing … in a very particular manner for Mr Brown the Improvers use all that part of the Aske Estate the East of the Road leading from Richmond to Kirby Hills and describing exactly on this Plan all the Hills, Hollows, Levels, Walks, Waters, Woods Trees and Buildings….’ Now could he have done the work in that ‘very particular manner’, if he had not first met Brown on site to go over the work.
So Mrs W, we have very little time, I can’t say that we’re going to save the planet, but I can say that Brown had talent, oceans of it, uncharted oceans and what few of us there are had better concentrate what energy we have on trawling over them.