Mr Honey beat my door like an old carpet this morning, with the complaint that all the talk of valleys whether ‘transverse, direct or the other thing’ in my recent note (note 236) made a wholly misleading summary of our discussions.

He for his part had never heard of a ‘valley transverse’ and wouldn’t be upset if he never heard of it again – at this point he staggered and would have fallen, had I not lent him my arm. His dog Goodfellow is accustomed to more spritely exercise on a morning walk, and with the desire to be gone, had so wound his lead around his master’s legs as altogether to unbalance him.

By way of painting the picture complete: the dog, a knee-high spaniel of an indeterminate sort, next wrenched Mr H precipitately away from me and from our conversation. Nonetheless his complaint, to which I am bound to return, did linger in my mind as I considered a query from Mrs D, in which, though she had dispatched it from London, she showed her concern for Hulne Park, the secondary landscape of Alnwick Castle, the great house of the Dukes of Northumberland.

She wonders what evidence there might be for supposing that that dancer and dicer of soil, Capability Brown, worked at Hulne, and she speaks as one who, to my certain knowledge, has been up to her neck – nay totally immersed, and for many months – in an inundation of muniments at Alnwick Castle.

As it happens I was taking coffee with the Bar, and I prevailed upon him to agree that if Mrs D was asking the question then it must be the case that with the entire archive of Alnwick Castle at her command, she had as yet found no clear notice that Brown had worked at Hulne.

Now I might refer to the unknown tourist of 1789 who wrote; `next morning road thro’ Huln Park the Grounds of which are laid out by the inimitable Brown; in the middle of the Park is an elegant and lofty belvidere called Brissley Tower’. However that entry, which seems conclusive, was made nearly twenty years after Brown had been commissioned at Alnwick. Then, in the other camp, – and this I think goes to the heart of Mrs D’s inquiry – we must acknowledge that while Griffin was at work on Alnwick Castle, Hulne was being developed under the hand of the Duke’s gardener, Thomas Call (1717-1782), a local nurseryman who had produced a plan for the place in 1751.

But let us stir into the mix the knotty question of Cornelius Griffin, who was working at Alnwick from 1769, apparently as Brown’s foreman. He had been in receipt of payments by Brown from 1758 to 1769 and then he disappeared from the great man’s accounts. Even so, when he died in 1772 it was Brown’s responsibility to find a replacement, which he did, first with Thomas Robson, and then with Thomas Biesley. Robson doesn’t appear in the accounts either, but Biesley does – and here I think is a light in the murk – Biesley was paid by Brown as a foreman up until 1772 when he also disappeared from the accounts – his is the same story as Griffin’s. We would be no less than straight with these facts if we concluded that Brown was paid a retainer to advise, but all foremen and staff were employed directly by the Duke. The same arrangement might have prevailed elsewhere – at Holkham for example, where Brown was paid 50 guineas a year from 1762-1764.

Here is the letter from Thomas Butler, the Duke’s steward at Syon (26th July 1772): ‘… I have however by the last post written to his Grace to acquaint him with the Death of Mr Griffin, but as the Duke was gone from [ ], the last Time we heard from thence, & was then at Aix la Chapelle, & perhaps is since moving about, it will in all Likelyhood be some time before we shall receive his Orders about getting some body else in the Room of Mr Griffin; and I therefore think it will be very proper to keep the works going forward in the best Manner you can, and I should hope Mr Call is sufficiently acquainted with the Plan of what is to be done, to direct the work=men: I cannot think My Lord Duke will take it amiss if Mrs Griffin is sent up to her Friends at His Graces Expence, or if there would be any Difficulty made about it, I should apprehend Mr Brown would take some Care concerning her when she arrives here, which I am told he has said he would , having heard of her Husband’s Death: Mr Brown is at present from home, but I hope to see him before the End of the Week, and ask his advice on the Business.’

In short the relationship between Brown and Call may have been exactly the same as that between Brown and Griffin. Call knew about ‘the Plan of what is to be done’, but we would have known nothing about either of the men and their relationship with Brown but for Griffin’s death.

I would not have pursued Mrs D’s question into such a thorn brake of muddle, but it exemplifies the constant difficulties we face in pinning down Brown’s work. So often the question resolves itself into an attribution on stylistic grounds – does Hulne look like other Brown landscapes, and if so which, and when were they made? – and thus it is with the classification of valleys as ‘transverse’, ‘direct’, or ‘adventitious’. We classify, we notice the emergence of motifs from the corpus of Brown’s work, and then we gain the confidence to conclude that a certain trick of design is likely to be his.

In the case of Hulne, we might agree that its circuit of drives, its great expanses of smooth turf, its tower (1777-80) by Adam – or was it by Brown? (but it looks to me altogether too complex a building for Brown)– all these are cut from the same cloth as those other secondary parks that one finds in landscapes attributed to Brown: the new park around Lumley’s Seat at Stansted, the New Parks at Grimsthorpe, Ditchley and Dunham Massey, Calton Pasture at Chatsworth, the sheep walk at Enville, and, if it comes to it, the parkland around the Folly at Wimpole.

Then I would ask the curious observer in what circumstances Brown might have escaped a consultation, if he was working and advising at Alnwick Castle, adjacent to Hulne? Perhaps the 1st Duke wanted to compare his work with that of his own hired gun, Thomas Call? Just so did the poet William Whitehead hope (in vain) that Brown would row with William Mason when Lord Harcourt summoned the latter to make a flower garden in the middle of Brown’s pleasure ground at Nuneham Courtenay. This is not likely since Call was familiar with the plan for Alnwick, and if such a joust had been the Duke’s intention, one might ask why Call chose for his design something so Brownian in character. It may be simpler to suppose that the Duke felt he needed two foremen for the scale of his works, and Brown himself to give overall instruction.

 

The point in the end, which is an inescapable element in the pursuit of Brown, is that we never know exactly what he did or where he did it, or what he was trying to achieve. Furthermore we never shall know, and a certain humility, a certain acceptance of the absence of facts is essential to our appreciation of his work.