'The Account Book of Lancelot 'Capability' Brown, the great landscape gardener of Fenstanton, Hants'

Scope and Content

The account book was used by Lancelot 'Capability' Brown between 1759 and 1783 to record staged payments received from clients and disbursements to sub-contractors, employees and nurseries. The volume is a working document, a standard 18th-century business ledger, with crosses drawn through entries to indicate when work was completed and an account paid in full. It has been suggested that the book is the only survivor of at least five used by Brown during his career. Some pages are signed 'L. Brown' and most of the entries appear to be in his hand. After Brown's death in 1783 entries were made by Samuel Lapidge, named in Brown's will as the successor to his business, who used the account book to record the completion of outstanding projects, settling the accounts and passing payment to Brown's executors.

The volume covers the years when Brown was at the peak of his career, with a client list including the King and members of the aristocracy. In the 1770s the account book shows that Brown was simultaneously masterminding projects at Blenheim, Burghley, Claremont, Luton, Sandbeck, Tottenham Park and Wimpole, as well as numerous smaller projects. Altogether the payments to Brown recorded in the volume total £320,000. Brown employed a team of surveyors, foremen, clerks of works, contractors and associates, who were responsible for much of what was delivered in Brown's name. Frequently mentioned in the account book are his surveyors John Spyers and Samuel Lapidge, his architectural partner (and son-in-law) Henry Holland and foremen Michael Mellican and William Ireland. These men oversaw the work of a large number of labourers and gardeners.

Brown's skills and knowledge were self-taught. Thanks to his early experience as a head gardener, Brown was a knowledgeable plantsman and there are hints of this in the account book in the form of references to his designing kitchen gardens, a task requiring technical and horticultural expertise. The volume includes payments to London nurseries for large numbers of trees and shrubs, as he used mature specimens to achieve immediate impact, inventing a tree-moving machine that used horsepower to transplant them. The account book records Brown's site visits, and his preference for travelling to southern properties in spring and to northern clients in the autumn.

The volume records a dispute in 1765 with Ambrose Dickens of Branches, Suffolk, over extra work worth £58 1s 8d. The entry reads, 'Mr Brown could not get the money for the Extra Work and tore the account before Mr Dickens face and said his say upon that Business to him.'

Administrative / Biographical History

Lancelot Brown, also known as Capability Brown (1716-1783), landscape gardener, was born in Northumberland, the son of a yeoman farmer. He attended the village school in Cambo before leaving to work as gardener's boy for Sir William Loraine, at nearby Kirkharle Hall. He was subsequently employed by Lord Cobham at Stowe in Buckinghamshire, where his talents were quickly recognised, and he was given increased responsibility. In 1741, at the age of 25, he was put in charge of all the architectural and landscaping works being carried out at Stowe, collaborating closely with the designers James Gibbs and William Kent. His reputation spread and, with Lord Cobham's agreement, Brown began to establish himself as a designer and landscape artist in his own right, undertaking a large number of commissions from members of the aristocracy while continuing to supervise the landscaping at Stowe.

Brown married in 1744, and seven years later, after the death of Lord Cobham, moved with his family to Hammersmith, in London. He continued to accept design commissions, ranging from relatively small town houses to palaces. The services he offered were varied: in some instances he would survey a site and draw up plans for his client to execute, while with other commissions he was personally involved at all stages, supervising the work himself and making repeated visits to the site. His style of informal but coherent landscapes was much admired, appealing to the 18th-century ideal of natural beauty, adorned with design features such as ha-has, lakes, pleasure gardens, carriage rides, temples and follies. Brown also designed greenhouses and more utilitarian horticultural structures. In 1764 he was appointed Master Gardener at Hampton Court Palace and Richmond, and moved to an official residence at Hampton Court. He continued his private practice, and is believed to have worked on over 150 different projects in the period from 1750 to 1780. He continued to work up to the end of his life, and died in London on 6 Feb 1783.

Over 200 landscapes were created by Brown, many of which survive intact today. His large-scale projects include the landscaping at Stowe, Petworth Park, Croome Court, Sherborne Castle, Burghley House, Longleat, Wrest Park, Chatsworth, Bowood House, Blenheim Palace, Highclere, Audley End, Syon Park, Warwick Castle, Holkham Hall, Temple Newsam and Harewood House.

Conditions Governing Access


Due to the fragile nature of the volume readers are required to use a surrogate copy. Surrogate facsimiles are available at the Lindley Library in London and at Wisley and Harlow Carr Libraries. Please check the Library website for opening hours. A digital version of the account book of Capability Brown, with searchable personal and place names, is available online at www.rhs.org.uk

Acquisition Information

The volume was deposited as a loan in the 1950s. It was donated as an outright gift in 2012 by Michael Morrice, a descendent of Lancelot Brown

Other Finding Aids

The Lindley Library descriptive catalogue, available online via the Archives Hub, and as a paper copy in the Research Room.

Archivist's Note

Catalogued by Liz Taylor, RHS Lindley Libraries archivist, in Aug 2016. Cataloguing assistance given by Jennian Geddes and Ann Thornham, RHS Lindley Libraries volunteers.

Related Material

Brown's will and documents relating to work at Hampton Court are held at The National Archives. Papers including some correspondence with patrons and a plan of the grounds at Blenheim Palace, with alterations made by Brown, are held at the British Library. Brown's accounts, 1753-1783, and those of his executors, 1783-1789, appear in the customer account ledgers of Drummonds Bank of Charing Cross, London, held in the Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS) archives, with digitised versions available online. Many papers relating to Brown's landscaping work are in private collections of his clients' descendants or subsequent owners. Others may be found in local record offices.