Mr. M. from Heathfield is puzzling over Scale’s survey of Sheffield Place in 1774, and goes on to ask whether we should trust the plans of Capability Brown. Now this is an interesting question. Think first of other estate plans such as those for Appuldurcombe and Southill where surveys were carried out by independent surveyors apparently commissioned while Brown was still working on a project. Is there any evidence that he was the contractor for them? Should we read them as indications that his work had gone wrong for some reason? It’s a tricky one. Cole’s plan for Southill (1777) may have been commissioned as Lord Torrington’s money ran out, but William Watts’ for Appuldurcombe (1773) is undoubtedly harder to assess. Difficulties with mapping are compounded at places like Fawsley where old plans were touched up, and at Aynhoe where it would seem from the 1783 plan that Brown’s plan was implemented in its entirety, but it seems more likely that this was just a direct copy of Brown’s proposal.

This plan of 1742 has been overdrawn at a later date with Brown's design. The alterations are not immediately obvious.

This plan of 1742 has been overdrawn at a later date with Brown’s design. The alterations are not immediately obvious.

Maps, Mr M., can never be trusted, but maps are frankly neither here nor there. Anyone who claims that we can only regard a piece of work as Brown’s if it is shown on his plan is clearly crackers. Brown was a good, grounded, Farmer George of a man. He might draw a plan, but then in most places he would return year after year to have a gander at the way things looked and then correct them. Have a look at the minutes for Burton Constable and read this note of his visit to Tottenham in 1767: ‘From thence [Brown] went down the Truffle Walk and approved of the Sainfoin grounds round the woods being included within the Bounds of the Park against Pinckneys Ground and Crofton Inclosures agreeable to a hint given by Lord Bruce.  Went through How Wood and look’d round the Park on that side but made no alterations in his former plan, but the paddocks to remain as they are until the plantations on Broad Moor are grown up.’

Listen to his after-dinner chat at Wrest, ten years later: ‘a Pencil & paper would do more Harm than Good, the Trees should be mark’d upon the spot.’

The only point to make about plans is that Brown did use them and every landscape architect since has used them. However inaccurate, plans do let you take in the whole of an estate and its capability at a glance. That will encourage you to look for its underlying coherence.