In my last I (note 281) gave my verdict on the varnished version of verisimilitude that is held to characterise the work of the gardener Capability Brown. Now Mr C of Nailsworth and Ms B of Swindon clearly assume that I have powers to communicate with the dead and so have joined to ask me what question I would put to the man if I had the power to do so.
I hummed and I haa-ed, for I have ever been a student of the rational and hence averse to superstition, to ghosts, to haunting. I even considered taking the question to the Tatler’s Waste-bin to have it examined for probity, but facing their unrelenting pressure I agreed that I would ask him where he went for tea? and then who he drank tea with, and what was David Garrick like off stage and how often did Brown and he meet up, and when they were together, did Dr Johnson also call, and was he as frosty as one might think he was? – Perhaps Brown wasn’t a member of his literary club (my note 42) but could it it really be Brown with Garrick in the Zoffany painting, as Steffie Shields has suggested? and how well did he know Thomas Whately and René de Girardin? Did either of them interview him when they were writing their books? and did he mind being so little reported in England and so little known on the continent? and William Mason, whom he met at Nuneham Courtenay, and must have run into all over the place – at Hornby Castle for example – he liked Brown, but were the two friends? and how would it have been anyway to have friends amongst your clients and collaborators? and what about the Rev William Gilpin and the picturesque squires, Uvedale Price and Richard Payne Knight? Is it possible that they knew him too? Could it be that they found his dreadful puns a little OTT? and if he called on Horace Walpole, did that connoisseur wash his hands afterwards, lest he be infected by Brown’s lack of refinement? and what about Thomas Gainsborough? He painted Brown’s portrait, and he was rough enough, but could he have called himself friend?
I suspect alas that Brown would not have replied, even if he had been able to hear the question. He would have tipped his hat and made his way. He was a man of some discretion.