Ms D of Cambridge is a woman with a passion for gas-works, whose beauty, she feels, has for too long gone unrecognised.

She speaks of them as precious possessions, and indeed, it was as she was impressing upon me their singular form and beauty , that she caught me off-guard with a question about the money – at least £3,500 – that Lord Hardwicke paid the gardener Capability Brown for his work at Wimpole Hall. What did he get for it? – I was undone by her gasometers, and found myself floundering for an answer.

Later, in the relative calm of the Tatler’s Waste-Bin, I felt able to say that for anything from thirty pounds to fifty guineas, Brown would produce a general plan for a place, including a survey at somewhere around 6d an acre  all in (4d for Shillinglee in 1762 might be a bit on the cheap side) and for around one hundred, or one hundred and fifty pounds, he would throw in a plan for rebuilding the house. Additional costs for design and build? – let’s say around £700 for a reasonable lake, £700 or so for a folly or two, £300 for drainage work and £300 for roads and a bridge, but then he might not charge for the plan, and so could make a nice little 300 acre landscape for around £2,000. Then come his visits at five guineas a day (again for Shillinglee, where he charged £30 10s 0d for various visits, presumably six in number), but rising perhaps to seven guineas a day at Woodchester in 1782 where he was paid fourteen guineas for his visit. This doesn’t really answer Ms D’s question. We know that Brown at Wimpole fiddled around with the lakes, planted the north and west belts, built the tower, and presumably put in all the necessary fences. That doesn’t sound much more than two grand’s worth – in which case what was the other one and a half spent on?

Just a thought, but Lord Hardwicke’s architect around that time was James ‘Athenian’ Stuart – a man notoriously indolent and hopeless with money and contractors. I am loath to start a hare running with no evidence, but might Brown have been employed by Lord H to build Stuart’s designs? He did build the tower at Wimpole to the designs of Sanderson Miller. Indeed it has occurred to me that something similar might have happened in his dealings with the Spencers, who paid him enormous sums of money at a time when Stuart was working on the three Spencer estates (Althorp, Wimbledon and Spencer House), but it is hard to say how any of these landscapes alone could have cost so much.

That said, if we only had the approximate cost of each component of a Brown design, we would be much the better for it. This deserves an appeal to anyone who may know what a particular piece of work at a particular place cost to the nearest £XXX: please let the Brown Advisor know.

Thank you very much for the question Ms D, and the top of the morning to your gorgeous gasometers.

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