A wave of correspondence has broken across the desk of the Brown Advisor on the related subjects of Brown’s social position, flies, tea and cake. Mrs B. of Oundle wonders why we are not put off from eating cake if a fly happens to have landed on it, but we are repulsed by flies in tea. I suspect Mrs B. that it is because the flies on cake tend to buzz off if you flap a hand at them.
A regular contributor, Miss R. of Stanstead Mountfichet has sent me an interesting question – if that benign bozo, Capability Brown, ate cake, and if he did so, whether he would have been provided with a side-plate? Would, he in short, have dined at the top table with the cake, or at some distance below the salt? We may acknowledge that he was somewhat rough, something of a Goth, but would he have been given a side plate? Let’s start with Garrick, definitely able to do posh, but a good friend of Brown’s as well as a client, and here’s a note of Garrick’s Villa made by Joseph Cradock in 1775 ‘There will always be a material difference where the master himself is possessed of a fine taste, when compared with that of any hireling – he will more co-operate with nature – he has a better opportunity of becoming intimately acquainted with the Genius of his own place – a difference not to be explained on paper perhaps, but strongly to be felt ….
No wonder that our taste in England is still to be condemned, since most of our largest gardens are laid out by some general undertaker, who, regardless of the peculiar beauties of each situation, introduces the same objects at the same distances in all.’
He could hardly have been more explicit: Brown is a ‘hireling’ and a ‘general undertaker’, his taste is ‘to be condemned’, he is so far below the salt that his name is not worthy of mention.
William Chambers’ attack on Brown was aimed both at his class and his jumped-up ambition for clambering out of the melon ground at Kirkharle. It seems clear that Horace Walpole himself did not really like Brown, who worked ‘with persevering uniformity, for he was a consummate mannerist’ and whose ‘reputation and consequent wealth gave him almost exclusive pretensions’. He was bound to champion Brown because he was the purely English saviour of English landscape with impeccable English credentials (home-bred, untutored), and it was for his likeness to Adam, the original man, that Walpole’s ‘bad epitaph’ honoured Brown, but still, so far as Walpole was concerned, Brown was not a gentleman. He was a man of home-brewed rivers, made with a spade and a watering-pot and his ubiquity was against him: ‘it would be barely possible to enumerate all the villas and their environs which he re-modelled’.
I couldn’t agree more about the sheer number of places he worked on, but as regards the flies and the cake, well, with your permission I shall draw the subject to a close.