In 2018 we join The Gardens Trust in celebrating the work of Humphry Repton (21 April 1752 – 24 March 1818), the last great landscape designer of the eighteenth century, who was responsible for laying-out over 400 landscapes and gardens. Warwickshire has only two, one of which, Barrells House (Snitterfield), is of uncertain attribution. Stoneleigh Abbey is, however, one of his finest commissions, as well as being the house and gardens that so greatly influenced Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park. Stoneleigh possesses a particularly fine Red Book – the red morocco bound manuscript proposals with before and after views, revealed by pulling down flaps – for which Repton is famous.
Early Life and Career
Repton was born in Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk, into a prosperous, middling sort of family, his father being a collector of excises with further business interests in transport; his mother the daughter of a minor local landowner. Following an early education at Norwich Grammar School, at 12 he was sent to Holland to learn the rudiments of mercantile life. Here he also learnt the polite accomplishments of drawing and painting which were to be the foundation of his future career, possibly alongside the habit of living beyond his means that was to be its undoing. He was later to recall visits to many formal Dutch gardens.
In 1778, by now five years married, with two sons, and after an unsuccessful excursion into the woollen industry, he used his inheritance to move to the small estate of Sustead Hall, near Aylsham in Norfolk, setting up as a gentleman farmer, agricultural improver and political agent; his political duties taking him briefly to Ireland when his landlord and patron, William Windham of Felbrigg, was appointed as Secretary to the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. During these years he contributed text and a number of illustrations towards The History and Antiquities of the County of Norfolk (1781) which show his abilities as an artist. Following further business failures coming alongside poor returns from farming, Repton was forced to leave Sustead, moving, in 1786, to a cottage in Hare Street, near Romford in Essex, where he briefly turned playwright before contemplating a new career suitable to his principal assets: draughtsmanship, knowledge of land and wealthy connexions. In 1788 he was ready to announce to his friends:
H.REPTON having for many years (merely as an amusement) studied the picturesque effect resulting from the act of LAYING OUT GROUNDS, has lately been advised by many respectable friends (to whom he has occasionally given sketches for the improvement of their own places) to enlarge his plan, and practise professionally his skill as a LANDSCAPE GARDENER.
This is the first recorded use of the expression landscape gardener, which was soon to appear on his business card (pictured above).
From the beginning, Repton modelled his style and ambitions on the work of Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown (1716-1783), who had died five years earlier leaving a vacuum that all his less able or less affable competitors and/or erstwhile foremen were unable to fill. He was to be helped to fill the void by Lance Brown’s donation of many of his father’s Plans, and duly did so. Yet, in two respects the two great masters differed: Repton was never to act as a contractor, from which Brown had derived enormous profits; and whilst our knowledge about Brown’s attitude is known only from a single letter and sundry anecdotes, Repton was to publish extensively on his work. Both facts reflect Repton’s more determined effort to place gardening among the liberal arts, whilst at the same time buttressing a somewhat tenuous claim to gentry status that might have been compromised by undertaking to work as a contractor. Ironically, Brown died a gentleman possessed of a substantial landed estate, Repton an impoverished cottager!
Initially Repton’s landscape practice prospered, with many commissions coming from East Anglia, perhaps a reflection of prosperity brought about by agricultural improvements….
to be continued