The Repton Gazette and Brown Advisor

300 Frequently Asked Questions about Capability Brown, and a further 200 about Humphry Repton

195: Did Brown wear a wig?

Following rapidly on my last (note 194), Dr S of Surrey has raised the very interesting subject of wigs and that peculiar association made by Sir William Chambers between wigs, ex-kitchen gardeners and professional status:

`It is not in China, as in Italy and France, where every petty Architect is a Gardener; neither is it as in another famous country, where peasants emerge from the melon grounds to take the periwig, and turn professors’.

Wigs had, I conceive, long been a means of subsuming the individual within a professional body, and remained so for lawyers, even in Humphry Repton’s day at the end of the 18th century: ‘I remember the time when state and dignity were more externally mark’d when … if the head had little in it, there was always something on it to distinguish the importance of the wearer. Then men looked up with awe and reverence to the wig of a Bishop or a Judge an Alderman or a schoolmaster. But now the crop, or the bald pate seem to level all ranks, and it is only amongst Lawyers that “Big Wigs” are in full feather.’

To return to the purport of Dr S’s question, he asks to whom Sir William Chambers apologised in 1773? The offended man was described by Chambers as ‘yon stately gentleman in the black periwig’ and has often been held to be that marvel of gardeners, Capability Brown, since he was the man most directly attacked by Chambers. However, as we have seen in note 194, Brown did not wear a black wig, it is therefore more likely most directly attacked by Chambers. However since, as we have seen in note 194, Brown did not wear a black wig, it is more likely to have been either the wit and letter-writer, Horace Walpole, or his more loyal admirer, the Rev. William Mason – both of whom wore their hair black and both, when push came to shove, supported Brown.

Both had seen Chambers as a threat before the wretched book in which he published his attack on Brown was printed: ‘The newspapers tell me that Mr. Chambers, the architect … is going to publish a treatise on ornamental gardening: that is, I suppose considering a garden as a subject to be built upon.’ Both might have deserved an apology from Chambers, yet I fancy the black periwig was Walpole’s, for I once came across an undated sketch inscribed ‘Portrait of Mason the friend of the Poet Gray the hair of the head is his own.’ In that picture, Mason looks to be in his forties and – in short – he may not have worn a wig at all in the early 1770’s.

 

Well Dr S, we have indulged many an hour in pleasant colloquy on this subject at the Tatler’s W-B, but I shall postpone for now my own reading of the cause of Chambers’s vexation.

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2 Comments

  1. The simple answer to the question is yes – Brown did wear a wig.

    Well, he is certainly depicted wearing a Bob Wig in the famous 1773 portrait by Nathaniel Dance held at the National Portrait Gallery. That was one of the key attributes we had to establish when we commissioned our portrait bust of Mr Brown when much research was undertaken. Images found on the web were enhanced to see more details and we became quite expert in the styles of wig worn by eighteenth century gentlemen!

    Now Haddonstone’s portrait bust has been launched to mark the tercentenary, you can judge for yourself by seeing our significant and historic design at the Chelsea Flower Show where we will be exhibiting. The bust is already on display at Blenheim, the Orleans Gallery in Twickenham and in our own show gardens in East Haddon near Northampton. Visitors most welcome!

  2. To add to this fascinating byway of garden history, the coiffure of great gardeners, Brown both did and did not wear a wig depending on the occasion. Visitors to the forthcoming exhibition of John Spyers’ drawings at Hampton Court, the Empress and the Gardener (28 April- 4 September) will be able to judge for themselves Brown’s natural hair in Richard Cosway’s version of his famous portrait, as well as Brown’s attitude to topiary in general. Those preferring the bewigged Brown will need to visit the Mercer Gallery in Harrogate this June to see the original by Dance.

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By John Phibbs