A Capable Sheriff

28.10.2016 | category: General
© Portrait of Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown, c.1770-75, by Richard Cosway (1742-1821)/Private Collection/Bridgeman Images
© Portrait of Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown, c.1770-75, by Richard Cosway (1742-1821)/Private Collection/Bridgeman Images

One of the less well known elements of Brown's life was his election as High Sheriff of Cambridgeshire and Huntingdonshire in 1770.

Capability Brown, the celebrated and prolific manipulator of landscapes which he deemed had 'capability' for improvement, operated without a break from the 1740s until his death in 1783. He also designed or altered houses and ornamental buildings for which his parks, gardens and clumps of trees provided the setting.  Among his greatest achievements is his work at Burghley, where his portrait by Nathaniel Dance hangs and where he was consulted by the 9th Earl of Exeter for over 20 years. Successive High Sheriffs in nomination attending Burghley seminars will have driven through his park, admired his lake and classical bridge, passed his stables on arrival and lunched in his orangery.

Less is known about Brown's shrievalty, for in 1770 he became High Sheriff of Cambridgeshire and Huntingdonshire, the two counties sharing a sheriff between 1155 and 1964 (except for 1636-42). In 1767 he had acquired Fenstanton Manor, Huntingdonshire from the 8th Earl of Northampton, his client at Castle Ashby, writing off some of the Earl's debt to him as part-payment for the estate. He thus fulfilled the essential qualification of owning property within his county.

How and by whom he was nominated as High Sheriff is open to speculation since the procedure then was more fluid than it is now, when successive High Sheriffs are nominated by previous Sheriffs with the concurrence of a county shrieval panel. Vested political interests influenced the choice of the three names for each county proposed annually to the High Court and it was not a foregone conclusion that the other nominees would ever serve. The London Gazette of 11-14 November 1769 published Brown last in the list of nominees and neither Charles Bowles or Robert Bragge ahead of him ever served, nor was he nominated in the lists of 1768 or 1767, so he hardly had time to 'hit the ground running' as expected in the 21st century.  The 4th Earl of Sandwich, of Hinchingbrooke near Huntingdon, claimed to control the nomination of the County's Sheriffs, but it may be that John Heathcote, of Conington Castle, Huntingdonshire and Sheriff in 1767, had some influence too, seeking a Huntingdonshire man in line with the custom of rotating sheriffs between Cambridgeshire, the Isle of Ely within Cambridgeshire and Huntingdonshire.  Heathcote will have been aware of the purchase that year of Fenstanton, not far away, by a man with Brown's formidable reputation.  Any link between the two men will have been strengthened when Brown's youngest son Thomas became Rector of Conington in 1789, six years before Heathcote's death. The connection was continued when Brown's draughtsman and frequent deputy, Samuel Lapidge, remodelled the grounds of Conington in the late 1790s for Heathcote's son John Heathcote, MP and later sheriff.

Judging by Brown's engagement with over 20 new or continuing commissions in 1770, he worked throughout his shrieval year, his professional base being Wilderness House, Hampton Court which he and his family had occupied since his royal appointment as Master Gardener in 1764.  Although his clients tended to be great territorial magnates, the majority of these were peers and excluded from the shrievalty. He advised many smaller landowners, including at least eight Sheriffs ‒ one being Sir William Loraine, of Kirkharle, Northumberland (sheriff 1774), grandson of Brown's first employer in 1732.  Brown's eldest brother, John, was the Loraines' agent and married their daughter Jane in 1743, an indication that the Browns were not of such lowly stock as is sometimes suggested.  

How much spare time he had for shrieval duties is not known, and most legal requirements were performed by the Under Sheriff.  He did attend on the Assize Judges however, as we know from an anecdote reported by one of Brown's greatest detractors, Uvedale Price in his Essay on the Picturesque (1810) (p 245): 'when Mr Brown was High-Sheriff, some facetious person observing his attendants straggling, called out to him, "Clump your javelin men".

About the Author: Andrew Wells, High Sheriff of Kent 2005-06 and architectural and garden historian, trustee of Kent Gardens Trust which has just published "Capability Brown in Kent" (more information from www.kentgardenstrust.org.uk/publications)