Capability Brown’s reputation as a gardener was once almost tarnished in an argument over turkeys with his then-rival, William Chambers.
Chambers, who at the time as controller of the ‘Board of Works’ could be considered to have been Brown's boss, complained to other senior figures that Brown was abusing his position as Chief Gardener at Hampton Court Palace. According to Chambers, Brown was breeding turkeys in the grounds without permission. At the time a turkey was worth around 6 shillings each, or £34 in today’s money.
Garden Designer Todd Longstaffe-Gowan came across the letter from Chambers whilst researching an exhibition of Brown’s work, which noted that the turkeys in question were stalking the undergrowth in the Hampton Court garden’s maze. Chambers further complained that Brown allowed the gravel paths to ‘turn green with weeds’.
The reason for Chambers’ apparent hostility to Brown may be rooted in political differences and simple snobbishness. Chambers is noted as being a Tory whilst Brown was a Whig. Chambers later referred to Brown in his diary as being alongside “peasants [who] emerge from the melon ground to take the periwig, and turn professors”. Sebastian Edwards, curator of The Empress and the Gardener exhibition at Hampton Court, said that Chambers thought Brown, son of a farmer, had ideas above his station.
As we all know, Chambers was unsuccessful in bringing down Brown, who became the pre-eminent English gardener of his or any age.
This original story featured in The Times, 20th of April 2016, Page 13, by writer Jack Malvern.