Documents: Special Interest: Orchids:

Capability Brown’s Account Book to go on display

at RHS Lindley Library, London
by RHS
September 4, 2016

• ‘A Capable Businessman’ runs from 5 September – 15 October 2015

• New research reveals astonishing sums of money earned by one of the 18th century’s most successful and pioneering businessmen

• Display explores how he masterminded huge-scale, ambitious projects which shaped the landscape of Britain as we know it

He changed the face of the English landscape, but little is known about Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown (1716-1783) beyond the spectacular gardens and vistas he created. This year a new display at the RHS Lindley Library, the world’s finest gardening library, will show his personal Account Book to the public for the first time and reveal how he became one of the 18th century’s most successful entrepreneurs. The display forms part of the wider Capability Brown Festival to celebrate the 300th anniversary of his birth.

Newly conserved, the Account Book reveals the astonishing amounts of money paid to Lancelot Brown to transform the great landed estates of England. Mostly 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 manage his complicated network of sub-contractors.

Fiona Davison, Head of Libraries and Exhibitions, RHS Lindley Library, said: “Capability Brown created the rolling vistas and serpentine waterways that have come to represent the ideal English countryside. His personal account book, intended only as a private record, gives us a glimpse of what a great pioneer he was, and how he was running a business on a truly national scale. We can potentially draw exciting comparisons with contemporary business practices too, from his project management to his attitude to risk.”

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 in 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.

Professor Sir Roderick Floud said: “Capability Brown’s accounts are very revealing about his business, his clients and his family, to whom much of his wealth was given. It was a privilege to delve into them and to be the first to calculate his profits and explore his investments. He was a great businessman as well as an excellent “improver”, as he called himself.”

Ceryl Evans, Director of the Capability Brown Festival said: “We are delighted that the focus of the Festival celebrating Brown’s work is bringing to light the incredible impact his work had on the economy and society. New research demonstrates his influence not just on the way our countryside looks now, but also on the spending habits of some of the richest people in Britain at the time.”

The research shows that ‘Capability’ Brown earned the equivalent of £508.7 million from 1751-1783. By the time of his death, he had been paid £54 million for his work maintaining the grounds at Hampton Court 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 in contemporary terms Brown made a profit, during his years with Drummond Bank (1755-1783), 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 Account Book is a long slim volume, which could have fitted in Brown’s frock coat pocket. It was loaned to the RHS Lindley Library in the 1950s by the Morrice family, descendants of Brown’s younger daughter Margaret, and permanently donated to the collection by Michael Morrice in 2012. It has recently undergone careful conservation and examination in preparation for display, which has revealed new details including pieces of goose feather from the quill pens with which he wrote.

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 will also feature 18th-century books and prints that shed light on the way Brown worked.

A Capable Businessman runs from 5 September – 15 October 2015 at 80 Vincent Square, London. Admission free.

The Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) Lindley Library’s headquarters at Vincent Square, London is a treasure-trove of the history of gardening, with books, prints and botanical art dating from the 16th century to the present day. Founded in the early 19th century, it holds unique collections of early printed books on gardening, botanical art and photographs, as well as the archives of the RHS and of notable gardeners and garden designers. It includes 80,000 books, with a rare books collection dating back to 1514; about 30,000 original botanical illustrations and oil portraits, including the world’s finest collection of orchid portraits; and approximately 200,000 photographs.

This display is being held to coincide with the 300th anniversary of his birth, as part of the Year of the English Garden. For more information on the Capability Brown Festival, please see, email or @BrownCapability

  • New Eden
  • Kids Garden
  • Plant a Row Grow a Row