CSI Capability Brown

A delicate restoration of Capability Brown's account book uncovers some unusual relics, including soot, feathers and animal hide

Portrait of Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown, c.1770-75, by Richard Cosway (17421821)/Private Collection/Bridgeman ImagesWe’ve recently commissioned conservation work on landscape architect Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown’s account book and one of the biggest questions has been just how far we go in refurbishing the volume?

It is one of our most precious treasures: the only surviving business record of Brown’s clients between 1759 and 1783, and his income and outgoings for each commission. The volume was loaned to the library in the 1950s but, despite its very fragile condition, this meant we couldn’t commit to conservation work.

Then, in 2012, it was generously donated by Mr Michael Morrice, a descendant of Brown himself. With Brown’s upcoming tercentenary (the 300 year anniversary of his birth), the need to conserve became urgent. Given this history of private ownership and limited handling it’s little wonder the conservator, Bridget Mitchell of Arca Preservation, felt she’d almost ‘been handed the volume directly from Brown himself’.

Book construction explored

spine damage on account bookWe have tried as far as possible to make “historical repairs” – meaning as little intervention as possible, using reversible methods and if appropriate, techniques that reference the original construction methods. A lot of the damage stems from weaknesses in the book’s original construction and use. The elongated format, standard for an 18th century business ledger, strained the bindings. Opened flat on an unforgiving wooden desk, and most likely leant upon whilst making entries, the front board, spine and index pages suffered the most damage. Over time the sewing threads have frayed, animal glues hardened, splitting the text block and the tanned leather spine liners deteriorated causing harmful acids to migrate in to the textblock paper. We’ve strengthened the sewing while retaining as many of the original threads as possible.

The parchment binding was more complicated, with large sections of spine missing or detached. Parchment is made from animal skin and each piece flexes uniquely according to the age and part of the animal hide used. We could never match this and new parchment would introduce its own counter tensions. Instead we replaced the missing sections with laminated Japanese tissue, toned to match. This new material reinstates the original opening mechanism of the binding, taking the strains of limited opening, allowing the original joints to rest.

Tiny remnants of history

tiny feather found in the account book

Working so closely with the volume has revealed some exciting discoveries. Two tiny fragments of feather have lain undisturbed within the pages for nearly three centuries. Are they shavings from a quill sharpened by Brown himself? And the debris caught in the gutters – are these sooty deposits from candles as he made late night entries? To avoid destroying this historical evidence we decided not to sweep all the gutters clean of accumulated deposits.

We’ve also left some paper tears as evidence of the handmade nature of the volume. These were made by the sharp eighteenth century ruling pen scoring through the paper and relate the album’s original history in the serviceable use of double entry bookkeeping - an activity familiar to anyone running a business today. 

Brown goes digital

Lancelot 'Capability' Brown's account book

Even after all this work inherent weaknesses and the extreme acidity of the paper mean the volume can now rarely be handled. We are sharing a digital version using page-turning software on the RHS website. The conserved manuscript will be on display for the first time in the Lindley Library, London with accompanying events. We hope you can join us for a sniff of eighteenth century candle soot and some exciting insights into Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown’s business life. 

More information

Even if you are not an RHS member, the RHS Lindley Libraries are open to everyone and provide access to modern collections of books and journals on gardening and related topics. Our heritage collections of rare books, photographs, art and archives are accessible by appointment.

RHS members can borrow from the thousands of gardening books held in the Lindley Libraries - visit our online catalogue.


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