I have occasionally observed that after a dram or two, some men display a memory of astonishing acuity, correcting the smallest faults in a narrative with a pedantry entirely at odds with their slurred speech and loosely buttoned waistcoats. It was a thought that came to mind as I stooped over a morning saucer of coffee in the park – for I had caught sight of just such a man some yards before he caught sight of me, and so came tottering towards me. Dr E of Yorkshire, known as ‘Purple’, has the look of an ex-miner who enjoys a drink – and indeed that is what he is.
‘Purple’, with a generous wave of the arm to indicate that I might continue with my coffee, called out to me ‘and what do you think of Minterne?’ He was referring to a recent bulletin which made claims for Minterne Magna as a market where that magician of make-belief, Capability Brown, might have worked his magic The argument for such an attribution has been put as follows: first, the Minterne Digbys, and Robert Digby in particular, knew Brown and would travel miles to see him in the 1770s when he was visiting Sherborne Castle, and second, Minterne shows signs of Brown’s influence in the principal approach from the east across Eleanor Bridge, and indeed in the planting, the drives and the viewing platforms on the east side of the water.
The plain fact however is that if Captain Digby liked Brown enough to travel across country to meet him, then there is every reason to suppose that he would try to copy his ideas at Minterne – and indeed, as I pointed out to Dr E, this is the opinion held by the Minterne Digbys today.
‘Purple’ then ran directly on to the question of the Chateau d’Harcourt, in which Lady Craven saw so many signs of Brown’s influence. For just as the Minterne Digbys could claim kinship with Sherborne Castle, so could Duc d’Harcourt with Brown’s clients, the Harcourts of Nuneham Courtenay.
As for the Chateau d’Harcourt, having never seen it, I await my invitation. Lady Craven mentions, I think, ‘Rocks’ which I take to be the ruins of the old chateau – always a favourite with Brown – and her ‘river that without giving Wildness gives great Spirit to the Place’ sounds like Brown – but I put it to Dr E that none of this adds up to much that is worthy of an attribution. Family members will either copy or compete with each other, and in either case the consequence may have been a spreading of Brown’s style. This is something he may not have wished to control even if he had the power to do so.