Capability Brown’s 18th-century account book goes on display

16.09.2016 | category: General
The front page of Capability Brown's Account Book
The front page of Capability Brown's Account Book

He changed the face of the English landscape, but little is known about Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown beyond the spectacular gardens and vistas he created. A new display at the RHS Lindley Library shows his only known Account Book to the public for the first time, revealing how he became one of the 18th Century’s most successful entrepreneurs.

Newly conserved, the Account Book reveals the astonishing amounts of money paid to Lancelot Brown to transform the great landed estates of England. Partly written in his own hand, the book details the payments he received from 125 clients from 1759, when he was at the peak of his powers, to his death in 1783. His impressive clientele included The King, six prime ministers, seven Dukes, 26 Earls, 19 Knights, and Baronets, two generals and a judge. The records show his remarkable ability to juggle many large-scale projects simultaneously as well as managing his complicated network of sub-contractors.

A new research paper by the renowned economic historian Professor Sir Roderick Floud is being published by the RHS Lindley Library to complement the book’s display. For the first time it examines in-depth both the Account Book as well as Capability Brown’s records with Drummond’s Bank (now available online at the archives of the Royal Bank of Scotland) to reveal new insight into his clients, how he successfully managed his cash flow and how the sums realistically compare to modern money.

The research shows that ‘Capability’ Brown earned the modern equivalent of £508.7 million from 1751 to 1783. By the time of his death, he had been paid £54 million for his work maintaining the grounds at Hampton Court Palace and (after the King) his highest spending client was Lord Clive of India, who spent £51.8 million on his new house and garden in Claremont, Surrey. It is estimated that, during his years with Drummond's Bank (1755-1783), in contemporary terms Brown made a profit of around £139 million from receipts of £840 million, a profit rate of about 17%. He managed to juggle his payments to workmen and suppliers by continually keeping this large profit margin, which records show proved challenging towards the end of his life.

The display will explore what the Account Book tells us about how Brown operated, such as the frenetic amount of travelling he did between his ongoing projects – often undertaking journeys for days at a time - and the team of specialist subcontractors he relied upon to deliver his vision. Glimpses of Brown’s personality also creep in, such as an incident in 1765 with Ambrose Dickens of Suffolk over an unpaid bill. The book records “Mr Brown could not get the money for the Extra Work and tore the account before Mr Dicken’s face and said his say upon that Business to him.” The display also features 18th Century books and prints that shed light on the way Brown worked.

A Capable Businessman runs from 5 September – 29 October 2016 at RHS Lindley Library, 80 Vincent Square, London, SW1P 2PE. Admission free.  

The Account Book has also been newly digitised and can be viewed here

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