Looking at the Account Book

14.10.2016 | category: General
Interpreting Brown's Account Book
Interpreting Brown's Account Book

This newsletter piece continues from last week's piece titled ‘Upwards of 884 distinct Characters’.

Every page from Brown's Account Book has taught us something about Brown’s character and business ethics. For example, when negotiation over extra-contractual expenses with lawyer Ambrose Dickens reached stalemate, Brown ‘tore the Account before Mr Dickens face & said his say upon that business to him’.  Some of these anecdotes have been repeated numerous times in books, articles, on TV, and indeed in the current exhibition of the Account Book in the Lindley Library, but it was great to hear people discover Brown’s voice first hand for themselves in the primary source. We can all have a go at this now, wherever we are, as the RHS has made the Account Book accessible to all on its website. Fiona Davison, the RHS Head of Libraries and Exhibitions, hopes that this will be the first of many such sources for garden history to be put online.

Our workshop began with Fiona’s welcome to the Lindley Library, and a thoroughgoing introduction to its internationally significant archive and rare book collections, before homing in on the history of the Capability Brown Account Book.  It survived because it was an essential record for Samuel Lapidge, as Brown’s Executor, to continue projects and, crucially, to call in his debts.  We looked for evidence of other accounting records: the Account Book is not the best example of a business ledger, and may have been more of a memorandum book for purposes of ‘Credit Control’.  Brown must also have kept vouchers, income and expenditure journals, and ledgers, which have not survived. Historians using archives should always be aware of ‘the one that got away’ – the records that were written but have not survived, or that might have gone astray and so should be pursued.  With this in mind, we had a ‘refresher’ about how to search for archives using National Archives 'Discovery' website which brings together records form the National Archives and over 2500 archives across the UK.  

Discovery serves as an index to records in both public and private repositories throughout Britain, and then provides contact details and links to their online catalogues where available. By this method, we quickly discovered that Brown’s Contract with the Earl of Donegall for Fisherwick Park, near Lichfield, is at the William Salt Library in Stafford. Googling does sometimes bring interesting finds, but a structured search of trusted sources is better.

One of the key functions of specialist Libraries and Archives is to connect people with one another, as well as with authentic original sources for their research. Our Interpreting Brown’s Account Book skills sharing session at the Lindley Library on 28th September fulfilled this aspiration perfectly.  It brought together representatives of Garden Trusts from across England and Wales, owners and custodians of gardens and of archives, gardeners, and garden historians.  I for one learned a great deal from everyone who came to the workshop.

About the Author: Peter Foden, Archivist & Palaeographer: www.peterfoden.com @PeterFoden 

Peter and Fiona Davison, Head of Libraries and Exhibtions at RHS will be running a further skills sharing seminar on Interpreting Capability Brown's Account Book on 20th October at The RHS Lindley Library in London.