Happy New Year to all! It’s New Year’s day 2016 and already the inbox of our editor is filling – with a first question from that remarkable restaurateur and bon viveur Mr W of Nottingham, who asks when the celebrations for the tercentenary of the birth of Capability Brown are due to start.
The flooding that has affected my part – and indeed many other parts – of the country proved a bar to the bringing in of the New Year in a social way. However since 2016 is to be the great year of Capability Brown’s tercentenary, I had settled with that good gentleman, Mr Honey, to bring it in upon a quiet evening at the snug of the Tatler’s Waste-Bin, a roaring fire, a hot toddy and pencil and papers to resolve this problem of Mr W’s.
The point, which I have not hitherto addressed, but which his email brought back to me, like a twinge of sciatica in the current damp weather, the point, which has been made to me before by Mr W, is that Brown might actually have been born in 1715. If that were the case, then it would rather blow a hole in my tercentennial project.
Let us look at the facts. Brown died on February 6th 1783, and his obituarist declared him to be 67 years old, in which case he must have been born at some time between February 6th 1715 and February 6th 1716. If the year was 1716, then we can pin it down a little further and agree that his birthday was at some time between January 1st and February 6th.
However, it is generally presumed that 18th century babies were baptised shortly after birth, because so many died while still infants. This has led argumentative types among my acquaintance to propose that Brown must have been born shortly before 30th August 1716 (when he was baptised), and so can only have been 66 when he died. That is to say, in his 67th year.
Unless my correspondents object, I will for the present accept the facts that we are given, and by way of compromise propose that he was born during the last week of January or first week of February, 1716.
Mr H fancies the 1st of February, as a memorable enough date. I would be equally inclined to accept something less likely to draw attention to itself: the 24th of January for example.
The opinions of Mr H and the Brown Advisor however are as nothing. Mr W must be assured that as I write, a mob of myrmidons is dancing through the dim subterranean misasma of the Landscape Institute, with blue teeth in their ears and small towers of paper on their heads. The committee, government funded and prepared for battle, is even now finalising its moves. At Easter, its celebrations will begin.
At the last however, let me persuade Mr W that it is not Brown’s 300th birthday that we are celebrating, but the man, his works and his continuing legacy. As for argument about the precise date on which he may have been born, forgive me, but it can never be courteous to make an inquiry of someone who does not give a button what the answer is.