English country gardens: celebrating the life of landscape designer Humphry Repton

Tatton Park, Cheshire
Tatton Park, Cheshire. Credit: National Trust Images/Chris Lacey

In the bicentenary year since his death, we shine the spotlight on Capability Brown’s successor, the 18th-century landscape designer Humphry Repton. By Susie Kearley

The young Humphry Repton was better known among friends for his failed business ventures, his inability to settle in a career and his financial struggles than for any extraordinary design talents or aptitude for gardening.

However, it was thanks to a short period as the private secretary to the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland that Repton developed a passion for horticulture that he later turned into a successful career – reshaping the gardens of some of our nation’s most magnificent stately homes.

Landscape designer Humphry Repton
Landscape designer Humphry Repton

Born in 1752, Repton spent his early life in Bury St Edmunds. The family moved to Norwich in 1762, where Repton decided to become a merchant trader. He travelled to the Netherlands to learn the language, spending time with a wealthy Dutch family who encouraged his interests in gardening, painting and drawing.

Upon his return to England, Repton did an apprenticeship with a textile merchant. At 21, he married Mary Clarke and set up as a merchant on his own, but his business failed. In 1778, struggling to make ends meet, the couple moved to a modest estate in Sustead, Norfolk. Here, Repton tried to become a journalist, then a playwright, then a painter, and nally a ‘political agent’, before getting a ‘proper job’ as the deputy to William Windham of Felbrigg Hall, the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, in 1783.

Repton’s red books

At Felbrigg, Repton’s interest in botany and gardening began to flourish. He borrowed books on the subject from his employer’s library at Felbrigg Hall and read about the likes of Sir Joseph Banks, a British naturalist and botanist.

In 1786, Repton moved to Romford, Essex, and invested in a venture to reform the mail coach system. The reform was a huge success for John Palmer, who led the project, but Repton lost his investment. Broke, frustrated, at his wit’s end and with a family to support, Repton turned to his passion for gardening and design, determined to make a profession out of it. By now, it was ve years since the death of Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown, Britain’s most prominent landscape architect. Using his contacts, experience in landscaping his own property and a air for sketching, Repton set out to fill the gap.

Repton painted beautiful watercolours of his clients’ gardens. His red books, presented to each client, combined these paintings with sketches, plans, and explanatory text. The clients could compare before and after views, and pick and choose which parts of the designs they wanted to implement. It was an early bespoke service.

Kensington Gardens to Harewood House

Repton’s first paid project was at Catton Park, Norwich, in 1788. His design was well received and catapulted the young designer to relative fame. The following year he produced a red book for Holkham Hall in Norfolk, having been asked to reimagine the pleasure grounds around the lake by its owner, Thomas William Coke. Among the plans he presented to Coke was a ferry “so contrived as to be navigated with the greatest ease by any lady”. It’s unclear if the ferry was added, but some of Repton’s suggestions were implemented, including a tunnel leading to the garden.

Over the next two decades, Repton designed about 400 parks and gardens, although not all his designs were executed. He produced designs for Cobham Hall (Kent), Kensington Gardens and the old Wembley Park (London), Sheringham Park (Norfolk), Attingham Park (Shropshire), Dyrham Park (Gloucestershire), Harewood House (Yorkshire), Longleat gardens (Wiltshire) and Tatton Park (Cheshire).

Harewood House
Harewood House, Yorkshire. Credit: Harewood House Trust/Lee Beel Photography

In 1796, he was commissioned to improve the park of Blaise Castle, near Bristol, and soon he began work on Grovelands Park, home of the Priory Hospital in London. In 1805, Repton submitted a red book full of designs for the parks and gardens of Woburn Abbey in Bedfordshire. The 6th Duke of Bedford implemented some of them, putting in a new approach road, planting schemes, pleasure grounds and a bridge. Themed areas, such as the Chinese garden, were a big hit – it remains striking to this day. Repton also designed the American Garden and the arboretum at Woburn.

The Duke of Bedford was so pleased with Repton’s work at Woburn that he commissioned him to work on the gardens at Russell Square in London the following year. Today, a statue stands in the gardens in his memory.

In 1808, Repton landscaped the park and gardens at Stoneleigh Abbey, redirecting the River Avon to create a beautiful mirror lake, which showed off the majestic building. He designed formal gardens with paths and viewpoints. Today, you can explore the landscape, with bridges and walkways, leading to beautiful pleasure grounds and a woodland walk. A cricket pitch, also added at the time, brought a new dimension to the estate; it is still used by Stoneleigh Cricket Club.

Sheringham Park in Norfolk
Sheringham Park in Norfolk. Credit: National Trust Images/Rod Edwards

Sheringham Park was one of Repton’s later designs, created in 1812. He extended the woodland – a move that was considered patriotic at the time because England was
at war with France and there was concern that the Navy might run out of timber. Repton also suggested a corn eld to ameliorate wartime food shortages. He included an ornamental temple in his design; it was not built at the time, but 150 years later a temple was erected in the grounds. The rhododendrons, for which Sheringham Park is famous today, were planted in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

Humphry Repton and Capability Brown

Repton initially emulated the style of Capability Brown but as time passed, he developed his own modus operandi, adopting a more natural approach to complement the existing landscape.

Indeed, Repton was often employed to improve Capability Brown’s gardens. He tried to enhance existing features, working with what was already there to create new vistas integrating pretty views of churches and lodges into the garden design, rather than leaving them incidental in the landscape. He added gates, temples and follies, but his designs were generally less formal than those of Capability Brown’s.

He did, however, embrace formality around the houses themselves. Capability Brown was sometimes criticised because his sweeping landscapes stopped at the steps to the house, with no terraces, parterres or verandas, so Repton offered clients formal gardens.

The architectural influence

Repton also worked with architect John Nash throughout the 1790s. Two of Repton’s sons became architects: his eldest, John Adey, was John Nash’s apprentice for four years, until the pair fell out because John Adey felt Nash wasn’t giving him due credit for his work.

At the turn of the 19th century, John Adey began creating architectural landscapes for his father’s gardens, and in 1808, Repton’s fourth son, the architect George Stanley, worked with his father and brother on a proposal to remodel the Royal Pavilion in Brighton. The Prince of Wales approved the plans, but the work was not executed because there wasn’t enough money. When John Nash put in later a bid, his idea was implemented, which must have infuriated the Reptons.

In 1811, Repton had a carriage accident, which left him wheelchair bound. Seven years later he died and was buried in the grounds of St Michael’s Church at Aylsham, Norfolk. His legacy is in the 400 gardens across England that bear remnants of his ideas. Not bad for a man who didn’t know what he wanted to do with his life.

BOOK AHEAD

Stoneleigh Abbey, Warwickshire

From 30 March to 31 October, Repton’s red book will go on show, plus there will be a special Repton walk around the grounds.

Sheringham Park, Norfolk

This landscaped park and gardens was apparently Repton’s favourite work and is among the best surviving examples. There is a permanent Repton exhibition and more events are planned this year.

Felbrigg Hall, Norfolk

Repton made sketches of Felbrigg, and some of the landscaping here is ‘Reptonian’ in character, leading to suspicions it was devised by him, even though no red book was ever found. This year Sheringham Park’s red book, which was created here, will be on display.

Woburn Abbey, Bedfordshire
Woburn Abbey
Colourful blooms at Woburn Abbey

The splendid gardens at the family seat of the Duke of Bedfordshire are Repton’s most complete work. This year the Woburn red book will be on display.

Attingham Park, Shropshire

Most of Repton’s proposals in 1798 were implemented at Attingham Park and a project is now under way to restore the pleasure grounds. Events this year include tours inside the mansion with views of the landscape. The red book will be on display between March and October.

Holkham Hall, Norfolk

Visitors to this 18th-century country house this year will be able to see for themselves the mark Repton left on the landscape, thanks to an interpretation panel in the park.

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