Humphry Repton was interred in a grave close by the south wall of Aylsham parish church following his death on the 24th March 1818. This year of 2018 marks the two-hundredth anniversary of Repton’s death and there is little doubt that this year’s anniversary will celebrate him in style, a person who was “the last great English landscape designer”. Commemorative events are planned to take place throughout Norfolk’s spring and summer.
Repton’s Early Life
Humphry Repton was born in Bury St Edmunds in Suffolk, son of John Repton, a successful collector of excise, and his wife, Martha (nee Fitch). Repton was, however, educated at Norwich Grammar School, where his father ran a transport business. In 1764 Repton was sent to the Netherlands to train as a merchant. Here he cultivated his skills as a sketcher and private gardener before entering a period of apprenticeship to a Norwich textile merchant. Following his marriage to Mary Clarke in 1773 Repton went into business on his own account, however, this venture was not successful.
Then, in 1778, his parents’ died which provided a small legacy for him to settle on a small country estate. There he became a minor squire with facilities to farm his own land; this was at Sustead near Aylsham in Norfolk. During this time, Repton remained restless and continued to cast his thoughts towards other suitable business opportunities. He had periods as a journalist, dramatist, artist, political agent, and as confidential secretary to William Windham of Felbrigg, when he was Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. These ventures followed one after the other with little success; as was his involvement in a joint venture to reform the mail-coach system; that too lost him money.
The successor to Capability Brown
Following these early business setbacks, Repton was encouraged by a childhood friend, a James Smith, to develop his interests in gardening and sketching and it was at this point that his professional plans in landscape gardening grew. William Windham of Felbrigg lent his support to Repton by allowing him access to the botany books in Felbrigg’s library; it was a gesture that helped Repton to blossom.
With his capital dwindling, Repton was to move his young family to Hare Street near Romford, Essex in 1788 where he first attempted a career as a playwright before deciding in 1788 to employ his artistic talents to become a ‘landscape gardener’. Repton was all too aware of the death of Capability Brown some five years earlier and the gap it had left in the landscape gardening world which he acknowledged and was keen to fill. He did so by eventually advertising and sending circulars to land owners, particularly those he had cultivated whilst in Norfolk.
His task, at first, would not be easy since he had a tendency to get on some people’s nerves from time to time, such was his sureness of the dreams he was selling. Maybe for the same reason, he was also thought to be a bit too cocky with a tendency towards a know-it-all air. Even Jane Austen lampooned him in her novel ‘Mansfield Park’ as a money-minded, cunning rogue who roamed the country, preying on the gullible wealthy and supplying them with fashionably picturesque vistas. Here is his very eye catching business card which sets out his stall pretty effectively.
Thus he was able, tentatively at least, to commence his career as a ‘landscape gardener’ – this was a phrase that he was to coin.
Repton’s first landscape commissions relied upon his Norfolk connections: Jeremiah Ives, mayor and textile merchant and owner of Catton Park near Norwich, Norfolk and Thomas Coke, notable Norfolk farming improver of Holkham. Arguably, the most successful of his Norfolk projects was for the Sheringham Hall Estate, Norfolk some years later. Abbot Upcher commissioned Repton to work on Sheringham in 1812 and the Red Book he produced is now considered to be one of the most comprehensive, a mark of the affinity Repton felt with Abbot Upcher. This Red Book is owned by National Trust but kept at the Royal Institution of British Architects (RIBA) library at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. In 2013-14 it was selected to be part of the exhibition ‘Masterpieces: Art and East Anglia’ at the Sainsbury Centre of Visual Art. Today, there is a permanent ‘Repton Exhibition’ at Sheringham Park, including a displayed facsimile of his famous Red Book that he designed and produced when he received his commission to undertake the work.
Repton the Landscape Gardener
Most of Repton’s commissions involved the preparation of his ‘Red Book’, so called for the red morocco bindings he produced them in. They were designed to hold his plans, drawings and accompanying explanatory text for the work; they also included watercolours, many with hinged or sliding overlays to show ‘before’ and ‘after’ views of the same scene. An 18th century winner! – as the following illustration shows; the top image is ‘before’, the bottom is ‘after’, with the addition of a nice curvy hill fringed with new woodland.
These Red Books were never published, they were simply elegant notebooks containing handwritten proposals for each commission he took on. A Red Book was presented to each client who was duly charged for the work and materials involved.
The Picturesque Controversy
Repton’s essentially practical, restrained style led him into to the very public ‘picturesque controversy’ with leading art critics, Richard Payne Knight and Uvedale Price. They regarded that landscape re-modelling should imitate contemporary approaches to landscape painting that showed more rugged and intricate landscapes, accompanied by classical motifs and references. Repton’s design solutions produced practical and often restrained designs for his clients. He particularly disliked attempts to impose the classical Italian style on the English climate and landscape. His aim always was to enhance nature and described landscape gardening in the following way:
“The perfection of landscape gardening consists in the four following requisites. First, it must display the natural beauties and hide the defects of every situation. Secondly, it should give the appearance of extent and freedom by carefully disguising or hiding the boundary. Thirdly it must studiously conceal every interference of art. However expensive by which the natural scenery is improved; making the whole appear the production of nature only; and fourthly, all objects of mere convenience or comfort, if incapable of being made ornamental, or of becoming proper parts of the general scenery, must be removed or concealed.”
Some of Repton’s designs foreshadowed later popular themed gardens, the laying out of gravel walks and of lawns for use as cricket, bowls and croquet pitches. He also helped popularise the use of terraces and re-introduced separate flower gardens and flower beds. He also replaced earlier classical ornamentation with romantic structures like grottoes and fake ruins. Existing buildings played an integral part in many of his schemes. They both provided reference points and informed his final design for a landscape. At one point in his career he worked, with the architect John Nash, whose early building design suited Repton’s garden style. His son, John Adey Repton, an architect, worked with him and in Nash’s office; continuing to do so after his father’s collaboration with Nash ended acrimoniously around 1800. A younger son, George Stanley Repton, also worked with Repton senior.
Retirement and Beyond
Repton retired in 1814, three years after a carriage accident that forced him to use a wheelchair. In retirement he produced a book, with his son J. Adey Repton, detailing his approach to landscape gardening; Fragments on the Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening (1816). The book adopted the phrase “landscape gardening” to express his theory that the art requires “…the united powers of the landscape painter and the practical gardener…” He also discussed in detail the relationship between the landscape and the main estate house. To be able to provide visual representations of proposed improvements, he used a system of sliding panels depicting before and after views in his ‘Red Books’. He published two other major works on garden design: Sketches and Hints on Landscape Gardening (1795), Observations on the Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening (1803). He authored a number of other minor works. Taken together with his Red Books, these books are an important part of his legacy to landscape design today.
In total, Repton produced designs for the grounds of over four hundred of country houses in England, including Tatton Park, Woburn Abbey and here in Norfolk, notably at Catton Park and Sheringham Park where a replica of his famous ‘Red Book’ is displayed.
From March 2018, the Broadland District Council and the village of Aylsham, Norfolk will host the official launch of ‘Repton 200’ – a year of nationwide celebrations, coordinated by the Gardens Trust and marking the bicentenary of Humphry Repton’s death.