The domed octagon of the menagerie at Coombe resembles the Great Menagerie at Versailles

The domed octagon of the menagerie at Coombe resembles the Great Menagerie at Versailles

A correspondent, purporting to be Señor J.M.P-G. d’A  de P. y A., president of the bull-fighting appreciation society of Seville, has written to let me know that Capability Brown is still remembered in that city as a fighter – a great toreador, celebrated for the flourish with which he executed his Veronicas, and that it was through his cape ability that he acquired his nick-name.

Come come, Señor J.M.P-G. d’A  de P. y A., you try my patience. However, you do prompt the question: did Brown cross the channel and travel in mainland Europe? Could he have been the Brown that Horace Walpole spotted with his son in Paris in August 1769? The menagerie generally attributed to him at Coombe Abbey was built shortly afterwards, during the 1770s, and is said to have been copied from the grand menagerie at Versailles. Coincidence? The menagerie at Weston Park also incorporated a domed Octagon.

Might there be further evidence for foreign travel that I have missed? Or could it be that Brown did travel abroad, but did not care to make too much of it? His reputation was built on his untutored Englishness, and would have been vulnerable to any hint of foreign influence. And what was it about the untutored that made them so essential a part of the English national character? These are good questions to which Señor J.M.P-G. d’A  de P. y A.’s inquiry insensibly leads us. May I offer some pointers to a reply.

First, David Hume defined ‘national character’ as a peculiar set of manners, made habitual by ‘the nature of the government, the revolutions of public affairs, the plenty or penury in which the people live, the situation of the nation with regard to its neighbours, and such like circumstances.’

Second he regarded the English as having ‘the least of a national character, unless this very singularity may pass for such.’ In short we have a picture of a character moulded insensibly by custom and tending, in the case of the English, towards an un-pin-downable anonymity.

Try this for a third point. It was made for me by Robert Tombs. English trends were set in the `18th century by the working classes, whose men, for example, first adopted ‘round’ hats and abandoned wigs, a practice that was later followed by the upper classes. Rustic straw hats became similarly fashionable for women. A French visitor was quite disorientated: ‘In Paris, footmen and chambermaids often ape their masters in their dress. In London it is quite the opposite; it is the masters who dress like their servants and duchess who copy their chambermaids – an almost inconceivable absurdity.’

Is there not something of Brown in these three observations? Could he himself have been the epitome of national character that Hume sought to draw.