Mrs D of Hampshire has asked for advice on the attribution to Capability Brown of the bath house at Warnford.

It’s an odd building, of classic proportioned but with a flint face, so one might guess it was hand-built by a well-educated hermit. Lady L of Malton has been in communication with me with a similar question regarding the aviary at Scampston, which is a single wall, roughly built again, and with the proportions of a block-house.

I was mulling these questions over a pint of sherry at the Tatler’s Waste-Bin, when Mr Honey came up, full of excitement over my last post (note 154) and anxious to make the acquaintance of Ms D of Cambridge. I soon learnt that he had placed a false construction on what I had been so lax as to call ‘her gorgeous gasometers’, but this led me to wonder about Capability Brown’s role as a builder, and the degree to which he would have considered himself a fully fledged architect, rather than a contractor of the designs of others (such as ‘Athenian’ Stuart). Mrs S of Grantham has more than once mentioned a building put up by Brown, identical to something he had seen elsewhere: is not the bridge at Burghley for example a close copy of Adam’s bridge at Compton Verney? Does this not suggest first that Brown built the bridge at Compton Verney (or otherwise he would not have been able to reproduce it so easily) and second that he was relatively indifferent to architectural form (as is implied in the comments of his friend the poet William Mason: ‘I also am uniformly of the opinion, that where a place is to be formed, he who disposes the ground, and arranges the plantations, ought to fix the situation, at least, if not to determine the shape and size of the ornamental buildings.  Brown, I know, was ridiculed for turning architect, but I always thought he did it from a kind of necessity, having found the great difficulty which must frequently have occurred to him in forming a picturesque whole, where the previous building had been ill-placed, or of improper dimensions.’).

  • These thoughts seem to me to vex every question of architectural attribution and I would suggest to Mrs D, that we try to classify any building work attributed to Brown under one of four heads: buildings that he put up to designs of others (possibly modifying the design as he did so – for that is what happened with Sanderson Miller’s tower at Wimpole);
  • buildings that he put up to a design plagiarised directly from the work of another architect elsewhere;
  • existing buildings that he modified;
  • buildings that he actually designed himself.

I suspect that the great majority of the last class of works would be kitchen gardens, gardeners’ houses, farm-houses – in my imagination, he is somehow more likely to have been comfortable with buildings in which function overrode ornament.

In short, he may well have built the bath house at Warnford, Mrs D, but whether or not he designed it is another question entirely, and best left to better heads than mine.