A few additional leaves will gild the record, and may serve to further Dr J’s inquiries (note 41) into Capability Brown’s working relationship with his main man and executor, Samuel Lapidge.
First his origins, that bold man of parts, Robert Nugent of Gosfield, was asked by the Earl of Essex to help him with the works at Cassiobury, where William Lapidge (whom we presume to have been Samuel’s father) was working in 1758. In 1759 Brown’s rival Richard Woods would seem to have recommended William Lapidge for work at Hartwell House. Would it be too far-fetched to suppose that Nugent had used William Lapidge for his own lake at Gosfield (large and quite possibly constructed in the 1740s) and then brought him across to help at Cassiobury? Then one might further speculate that Sanderson Miller, the architect and an early advocate of Brown, might have met William Lapidge when he was working at Gosfield and thus recommended the family to Brown.
We return to the critical days following Brown’s death in 1783, within weeks of which, Samuel was seeking to take control of his empire, writing to clients all over the kingdom from Henry Holland’s office in Hertford Street. These letters take a similar form – here is a characteristic one from 26th February:
Being retained by the Will of the late Lancelot Brown Esq. to finish all his Contracted Works …. – I was brought up by M Brown & was with him near Twenty Two years – & mean to follow his Business, & flattery [sic] myself from the great advantages I received from so great a Genius as my late Great Master was, to be able to give more satisfaction than others who cannot know his methods & Ideas so well as myself. – I live at Hampton Court and should your Grace Honor me with an answer, I shall esteem it a High Honor confer’d on your Graces most Obedient & most Devoted humble Servant
15 years later, and faced with unrelenting attacks from Humphry Repton and, very likely, from his erstwhile partner Henry Holland, things are starting to slip. Here is Theresa Villiers, writing from Aldenham:
No Never! No Never! was there such a quiz, nay such an emperor of Quizzes, as our old Lapidge; you are well punish’d for leaving us so soon, as you have lost a sight you may never see Equall’d – I believe I was not in a giggling humour the day I had a confab with him in [Grovr?] Street, for his appearance did not then strike me in the ludicrous light it has since, Such a Serpentine Wig, probably made in the shape of some of his Gravel Walks, & of much the same Sandy Colour, such a pose! such a manner! in short I cd compare him to nothing but Suet, talks six & thirty at least to the Dozen, & in such a ridiculous way! that, indeed may be attributed to the quantity of Brandy & Port wch he drinks all day long, but within half an hour after his arrival, I must tell you the delight I felt at seeing Mr Villiers (I behaving quite well all the time) so mistaken with a fit of the Giggles that he cd not contain himself, & was really more indecorous than I even I ever was on the like occasion, tho’ he insists upon it that I aided & abetted this wicked proceeding by occasional jogs under the Table, however old Lapidge was very well contented to laugh too at his own wit, & all did well; & you will perhaps be as well pleas’d if I give you his opinions instead of my own – Enfin donc he has not quite satisfied me because I cd not sufficiently contract his ideas to our Scale; after looking at Slyes Hill he tried very hard to persuade us to build a new House in that pretty field on the Hill above, wch he said might be done completely for £5000, but we soon put a Stop to that, by assuring him we might as easily find 50,000 & that we had no better chance 10 yrs hence than we have now & that the whole Plan must tumble to the Ground if he could suggest nothing more moderate; upon this he chang’d his Tone, but will hear of nothing short of pulling down our poor dear Barns, wch as the Materials will not be injur’d, he says will add but little to the Expence, you may imagine all the wry long faces that poor architect George has made on the occasion, but he has bow’d submissively to his deuce, & down they are to come. Et puis when they are gone, he talks of making the addition to the House on that side, with all the Windows looking down the Hill – He will make a Plan wch I can perhaps copy & you will understand better than any description at present, the Road will be turn’d considerably behind the Cottage, which bye the bye we are now likely to get into our Possession, & may knock down directly; the Cow yard & the Garden Wall he does not object to as they will not be seen from the best rooms, in short he is to make a Plan, & if we approve of it he will then make an Estimate, wch if it should be within our Compass he will undertake the Business by contract, & provided we make no alterations, it will not cost a shilling more than the Estimate – he has left us nothing to do at present but to grout up some Hedges, take down the poor Barns, & build a Cottage for the Cowman with a Dairy, he will come again in a fortnight when of course you shall hear further particulars…
Here again, shortly after:
…We have heard no more of old Lapidge, but we hope to be favor’d with a sight of this Prince of Quizzes the end of the Week, when I flatter myself some progress (on our side at least) will be made Mr Villiers has not yet been able to make up his mind to order the precious Barns to be pull’d down, but I hope Mr Lapidge will make him do so. I grow more & more eager for his Plans to be put in Execution if they can any how be brought within compass – The Rats grow so noisy here that I look forward to Slye Hill with great delight, one of those animals is at this moment trying all the powers of his Teeth to come thro’ this Paper, should he succeed he will certainly put me to flight…’
And here again, after another six weeks, by which time Nash, and probably Repton with him have stepped in:
Lapidge came to us on Wednesday, & we could not get rid of him till this Morng but now thank my Stars he is not of the House & Dio volente will never come into it again – Such a Fool! & such a Vulgar! such a Drunkard! however!! – I really do not think he has one Single Idea belonging to him in Architecture or Gardning, & I believe we shall hardly adopt any one of his Propositions – However I hope we shall get a good House at last as we have had Mr Nash here since yesterday he is the Architect who did our house in Town & who for various reasons I was rather prejudic’d against but he has completely drawn & talk’d himself into my good graces now.
Finally, though there may be little consolation in it, I heard from Dorothy Stroud herself that the Architectural Publications Society reported in 1887 that Edward Lapidge FIBA son of the gardener at Hampton Court Palace had ‘exhibited at Royal Academy of Architects in London’ in 1808. He was then living at Hampton Wick and had drawn the garden front of Esher Place, Surrey, for John Spicer Esq.
In my next I shall turn to an appreciation of Lapidge as a designer.