Dr G writes from York to ask what evidence there is for Capability Brown’s having started life as a gardener.

When Dr G poses a question, some care is required in working out what the question is really asking. In this case I suspect it is that the lower one pitches Brown’s starting place in the class system, the more unlikely his career becomes – in particular that first step that took him from the cabbage patch at Kirkharle to a position of wunderkind in Lincolnshire and the courtship of Bridget Wayet, the local squire’s daughter.

Well, facts are facts, Dr G, no matter how challenging they may be to our preconceptions. So here are a few bits and pieces on Brown’s background, mostly from his enemies:

Uvedale Price: ‘Mr. Brown was bred a gardener, and having nothing of the mind, or the eye of a painter, he formed his style (or rather his plan) upon the model of a parterre; and transferred its minute beauties, its little clumps, knots, and patches of flowers, the oval belt that surrounds it, and all its twists and crincum crancums, to the great scale of nature. … When he was no longer among shrubs and gravel walks, the gardener was completely at a loss; for his mind had never been prepared by a study of the great masters of landscape, for a more enlarged one of nature: finding, therefore, no invention, no resources within himself, he copied what he had most seen, and most admired – his own little works: and in the same spirit in which he had magnified a parterre, he planned a gigantic gravel walk: when it was dug out, he filled it with another element, called it a river, and thought the noblest in the kingdom must be jealous of such a rival.’

Sir William Chambers: [landscape gardening] ‘in this island, … is abandoned to kitchen gardeners, well skilled in the culture of salads, but little acquainted with the principles of Ornamental Gardening’; by inference Brown was one of the peasants who ‘emerge from the melon grounds to take the periwig, and turn professors’ – ‘uneducated, and doomed by [his] condition to waste the vigor of life in hard labour.’

On the other hand Miss M writes from Bristol to suggest that Brown came from greatly respected farming stock and was by no means working class, even if he did start life as a gardener. You are not alone Miss M. Indeed there are those, particularly among the French, who speak of him with confidence as the illegitimate son of Sir William Loraine. Although the Brown Advisor himself has from time to time speculated that it was his connection with the Loraine family that encouraged him to imitate the painter Claude Lorrain in his work, this is a trivial inquiry. Let his descendants take the test and try a comparison of the DNA – and will this tell us some truth? To find that his father was a baronet will only satisfy class-bound snobs.

Being now older and a more mature speculator, I would prefer to draw your attention away from making associations between his birth and subsequent ability and towards the backgrounds of the people he knew and appears to have consorted with in London

There were the Irish, Oliver Goldsmith came out of a bog in County Longford, and Edmund Malone, Edmund Burke, Laurence Sterne all had backgrounds misty and lost. There is Dr Johnson whose father was in trade (not very successfully) in Lichfield, whence Garrick also sprang, and the great Sir Joshua Reynolds no less, the son of a schoolmaster in Plympton. Tobias Smollett, Adam Smith, of modest origins in Scotland – Brown was just another provincial from a humble background who found a place in London.

Brown’s background in practical work was never denied even by those who are likely most to have admired him, like Daines Barrington with his wish ‘that Gainsborough gave the design, and that Brown executed’, and the implication that Brown was more an engineer than anything else.