I’ve been teaching a course on 18thc garden history this term and finished with a class about Humphry Repton who was born in 1752 and died in 1818. If I’m honest I’d never really given him a great deal of thought – he’s not my period- as historians tend to say when stumped for something to say- but there was roomful of people waiting to hear about him and so I looked him up on our database…
…and then sat down to read Stephen Daniel’s biography of him in preparation. Within a short while I was hooked, partly because of Repton and partly because of the quality of Stephen Daniel’s writing and the book’s copious illustrations. [Humphry Repton: Landscape Gardening and the Geography of Georgian England, Yale UP, 1999].
How could you not get intrigued by someone who drew this view from his own house which most of us would find fairly idyllic, but then “improved” it by annexing the village green and planting roses!
Repton was clearly something of a character. He was a bit of a social climber – one commentator even called him ‘oleaginous’ – and he loved nothing more than mixing with his grander clients, and looking down on his inferiors. In 1788, hard up and in “dread of poverty” he turned one of his hobbies, sketching, into a new and profitable career as a landscape gardener to the wealthy. He used that description on his business card, and indeed he was the first person to call himself that, although the title must almost have been accidental since he was later to write “it ought rather to be called picture gardening”. Charging 5 guineas a day for consultations, although it did not make him rich, soon put him “in a state of ease and comparative affluence”.
In his early career he followed very much in the footsteps of Capability Brown, whose drawings and other working documents he was given by Henry Holland, Brown’s son-in-law. He designed Brown-like parks with clumps of trees, perimeter belts and serpentine drives and walks.
By mid-career he was moving away from Brown’s expansive landscape to a much “wilder” picturesque style, and using gothic architecture for buildings rather than the classical orders.
Finally, towards the end of his career, although he continued to worked mainly in a folksy mock-mediaeval/Tudor way, [as in the workhouse he designed for the parish where his son was the rector] he surprised everyone, including I suspect himself, by branching out into the exotic. This was such an interesting and unexpected departure for the grand old man of his profession that I plan to talk about it in another post shortly.
Unlike earlier great designers Repton often had to work on a much smaller scale, creating “grand gardens” around the villas and smaller country houses of the nouveaux riches of late Georgian/Regency England. As anyone who designs gardens will tell you, smaller is always harder. He hated it – but not because it his attention to detail has to be much more assiduous. It was because he despised “upstart wealth tramping over all I have been accustomed to look up to with respect.”
The changes in his approach can be most easily seen in his famous Red Books. These were meticulously detailed, discussing his suggested ‘improvements’ for the garden, park and house.
The elegant copperplate text was accompanied a number of sketches, often by Repton himself, which will he said, “better serve to elucidate my opinion than mere words”.
On first sight each sketch showed the site before Repton’s proposed improvements, but on closer inspection there was a flap or a slide of paper which when opened revealed how the site would look after the work was carried out.
It was a simple theatrical technique but it was effective in conveying his ideas. His changes may, in many cases, have been relatively simple – such as removing a fence, or thinning an overgrown shrubbery , but he had a good eye for creating or catching a view, introducing surprise, and providing variety in his gardens and landscapes.
Given his sense of humour and his love of theatre I doubt he’d have been too upset by critics who called his worked not “rural improvement but rural pantomime” which showed his “tinsel kind of talent”. Indeed he used humour in at least one of his red books, as to show what would happen to clients who were foolish enough to choose another designer over him.
He would probably have been much more concerned that, despite being a good advertisement for his ideas, the Red Books did not always translate into commissions and many of the more than 400 red books he produced were never carried out.
Of course gardens are ephemeral and we learn most about Repton not from his surviving landscapes and gardens but from his extensive writings, which are usually extremely well illustrated with engravings of his own sketches. Two of his Red Books, for Hatchlands and Ferney Hall , are available online at the Pierrepoint Morgan Library, and three of his most important books can be had as free downloads courtesy of the University of Wisconsin Digital Library for the Decorative Arts and Material Culture [see links below] and are easy to read – or at least to glance through to discover hs views, and the wide range and scope of his style.
The Red Books are at:
And Repton’s books are at:
Sketches and hints on landscape gardening, 1794 can be found at:
Observations on the theory and practice of landscape gardening, 1803 can be found at:
Fragments on the theory and practice of landscape gardening, 1816