Ever ready for trouble, the Ha-ha Hero asks why Capability Brown bought his estate in Fenstanton. Was it hubris? It is horridly horizontal hare country. Did he hate it? Is that why he did nothing there?
Coincidentally, but with remarkable serendipity Professor F from Oxford has suggested that Brown bought a second estate from Lord Egmont. Now one might reply that these were financial transactions undertaken to relieve a temporary embarrassment on the part of one or two of Brown’s clients, but I am able to report an interesting and not unrelated discussion that was recently had at the Tatler’s Waste-bin. Mr Honey has long contended that all mottoes, by which great families choose to characterise their actions, are so much bunkum, being utterly ambiguous. Wednesday evening being warm and port taken, we jointly resolved to test his thesis on Brown’s chosen motto ‘Nunquam minus solus, quam cum solus’, writing out our own translations of the Latin and throwing them into a hat so as to preserve the anonymity of the scholars.
The one translation that was barred was ‘Never less alone, than when alone’. This struck us as meaningless.
Here is a collection of those that were decipherable, in no particular order:
‘At the head of his profession, but modest with it’; ‘Alone but never lonely’; ‘At his loneliest in company’; ‘Supreme but sociable’; ‘I am a sour old, sad old, utterly complacent solitary’; ‘Having risen to a position as the pre-eminent landscape gardener of my day, I have learned to delegate’.
It seemed that Mr Honey had proved his point. Yet, I wonder if there is more to Brown than this. The line was said by Seneca to have been coined by Scipio, the great general of the Roman Republic who vanquished Hannibal and then elected to retire to the country, where he lived out his days in extreme simplicity. If Brown intended to retire to Fenstanton, if he was buried in an unmarked grave, if his final landscape (and one might justly call Fenstanton that) was a set of English common fields, unimproved, unenclosed, unaltered, in every way unremarkable, if his house, Fenstanton Manor, was a house of red brick (a colour that he hated to see on a house front), if it was aggrandised with the crudest kind of ashlar pilasters, then might one not conclude that Brown had it in mind to say that unknown and anonymous, that is ‘solus’, in Fenstanton, he had at last found his place in the world and was ‘nunquam minus solus’? – and would you be criticised for making a comparison with Shakespeare’s return to Stratford? Would you criticise me for seeing these primitive pilasters as declaring an allegiance to the ‘Patriots’ who had first launched Brown’s own career, deriving their ideology from the Roman republic, from Cincinnatus, from Scipio indeed, most anxious to root out corruption and happy to see the king, rather than the Whig Barons and aristocrats, as the protector of the rights of the people?