Author: Chris Yeo
Date: 22nd June, 2018
Humphry Repton was Georgian England’s last great landscape gardener. In this, his bicentenary, “Antiques Roadshow” expert Chris Yeo unearths the story of an unlikely success.
Anniversaries are rather like London buses; you wait for ages for one and then two arrive at once. We’ve already had the 300th birthday of Thomas Chippendale and now, moving the focus outside, it’s the turn of Humphry Repton: self-styled ‘landscape gardener’, self-appointed successor to ‘Capability’ Brown and self-elected, go-to arbiter of taste to hundreds of the place-makers of his day. This year is the bicentenary of his death in 1818 and a raft of exhibitions around the country are marking the event. Sometimes it takes an anniversary for someone’s true worth to be appreciated and that’s the case here. Everyone’s heard of Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown, the man so often (and incorrectly) credited with inventing the landscape garden. Visit any great English garden – with its sweeping vistas, shimmering lakes and ‘eye-catcher’ follies and we see Brown’s genius at work. Or do we? The chances are Humphry Repton had a guiding hand as well. His reputation might be over-shadowed by his more famous predecessor, but, in the history of landscape gardening, he was every bit as important. Over a 30-year career Repton became England’s leading landscape designer, responsible for over 400 gardens – an extraordinary achievement, especially considering that he only started gardening when middle age beckoned. He was as a trendsetter whose ideas seem surprisingly contemporary, he introduced childrens’ gardens, gardens for the disabled and, in his designs for London’s squares, brought nature into the heart of the city. What better time for the man who, in his own words, ‘brought back the garden’ to step out from the shadows?
Humphry Repton (no ‘e’ in Humphry, please) was born in Bury St Edmunds in 1752, the son of a wealthy Suffolk businessman. After attending Grammar School aged 12 he was packed off to Holland to pick up the finer points of commerce. The expectation was that he would follow in his father’s footsteps but in the event the trip provided the young and impressionable Repton with a very different sort of education. His time had been spent rubbing shoulders with the wealthy and well-read of Rotterdam and the trip did more to stimulate his interest in ‘polite’ pursuits such as sketching, gardening and botany than the grubby world of the counting house. Returning to England he did indeed follow in his father’s footsteps – to the bank – withdrawing the money Repton senior had diligently deposited. Picturing himself enjoying the leisurely life of a country squire, he bought a small estate where he indulged happily in a mix of gardening, sketching and music.
Whilst the young Repton had firm ideas about the type of life he wanted to lead he was less clear about how he was going to afford it. To complicate matters, he would only consider a job if it was outwardly respectable and intellectually or artistically stimulating. What Repton lacked in self-awareness he made up for in boundless self-belief. The next 15 years saw a succession of false career starts during which he tried his hand at journalism, painting, play writing and politics. His wife, – for whom the epithet ‘long-suffering’ seems very apt – must have watched in dismay as he flitted from one venture to the next. Finally, at the age of 36, with what little money he had left fast running out, he had his eureka moment: he would combine his twin passions of horticulture and sketching and become a professional gardener. Capability Brown had set the seal on gardening as a respectable trade but he had been dead for five years. Repton saw a vacancy there for the taking – he would become the go-to gardener for the elite. He learnt some elementary surveying and wrote to every useful contact he had, advertising his services as a “landscape gardener” (he invented the job title). Humphry Repton had finally found his niche. Proving that fortune favours the bold, success came almost straightaway. Two years into his new career and the plan seemed to be working better than he could have hoped. His client list was stellar. We see him at Longleat in Wiltshire, Woburn Abbey in Bedfordshire, Kenwood House on Hampstead Heath, and Sheffield Park in Sussex.
Repton’s overnight success is a tribute to his talents, but also the unique way he sold his ideas to potential clients. To help them buy into his vision, Repton produced a ‘Red Book’ for each commission. This was a slim volume bound in red leather containing Repton’s proposals, outlined in copperplate and filled with maps, plans and watercolours. The Red Book was probably the most original “selling tool” ever devised by a landscape designer. It’s U.S.P. were the watercolours –beautifully executed – with overlays showing “before” and “after” view. By simply removing a flap on each sketch, the client would then see what the view would be after Repton had worked his magic; a sort of low-tech equivalent of the PowerPoint presentation. It was a brilliant marketing device, in which the skills of Repton the visionary landscaper were joined with those of Repton the artist. His clients loved the way they could visualise his schemes, whether they ultimately decided to employ him or not. Many country houses still have a Red Book on the shelves of the library – more than a hundred are known to survive – and, in the rare instances they appear at auction, they make a LOT of money.
So, a master marketeer with an appealing back story but is there more to Repton’s legacy and why, 200 years after his death, are we celebrating him? Well, as he said himself, he ‘brought back the garden’. Under Capability Brown the garden had become a wide-open expanse, more like a park. Terraces and parterres had been banished and the grass came right up to the front door. Repton argued for a gentler transition from house to garden and brought a sense of intimacy back into garden design. For Repton, a stroll in the shrubbery was more the thing than a ride round the estate. He brought a softer Italian style to the English garden, with terraces, gravel walks, trellises, fountains and ornamental flower beds into the area around the house. Brown hated flowers, there was no room for them in his brave new world of views and vistas – it was all about trees. Repton re-introduced flower gardens, with more elaborate ornamental or themed planting, a style which would dominate gardening into the twentieth century.
While some of the detail of Repton’s designs have been lost in most cases, we can still appreciate the broader sweeps of his vision: the tree plantings, the dramatic routing of entrance drives, the siting of lakes, and the sudden vistas. Repton’s skill was to make house and garden work in harmony with the surrounding landscape. His leitmotif was ‘the burst’: whenever he could, he arranged it so that the way you first saw the house was immediately after coming through an area of dark woodland. This was designed to build up an emotional awe-struck response. Capability Brown never did anything like that. Themed areas were a key component of the Repton style; Chinese Gardens, American Gardens, mazes and arboretum. These set the taste for others to follow and his ideas continue to influence designers today. Humphry Repton is the link between the great landscape gardeners of the 18th century and the way we garden today.
Repton liked his landscapes to be peopled. Fortunately, today this is not too difficult as many of his designs are open to the public. Woburn Abbey in Bedfordshire, is perhaps the most complete Repton landscape. Longleat in Wiltshire is a perfect example of his signature style, and Blaise Castle on the outskirts of Bristol, a romanticised version of an English village green complete with thatched cottages shows Repton at his most poetic.
For events and exhibitions celebrating Humphry Repton’s bicentenary click here