The life and landscapes of Humphry Repton

This Saturday marks 200 years since the death of Humphry Repton, the last great landscape designer of the Georgian era.

Advising on some 400 schemes across a 27 year career, Repton filled the void left after the death of Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown in 1783, and linked the 18th century landscape tradition with the gardenesque movement of the early Victorian era.

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Repton’s plan for Ashridge estate in Berkhamstead © 2018 The J. Paul Getty Trust. All rights reserved

Early Life

Much of Repton’s life and career played out in the East of England. He was born in Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk on 21 April 1752 and attended grammar school in Norwich.

By 1773, after unsuccessful starts in various trades, he purchased and ran a small estate at Sustead near Aylsham in Norfolk. It was at this time that he began to learn about land management while also cultivating his knowledge of planting, landscape gardening and botany from friends and associates.

4 Reptons business card wikimedia
Business card for H. Repton, Landscape Gardener By Thomas Medland (1765-1833) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
In 1788, at the age of 36, he set himself up as a ‘landscape gardener’ – a phrase he coined himself. His first paid commission was for Jeremiah Ives at Catton Park near Norwich in 1788.

BB95_01809 - exterior of Catton Park
Catton Park, Repton’s first commission © Historic England Archive BB95_01809

A unique design practice

By 1790 Repton was the pre-eminent landscape designer of the age. His approach was firmly rooted in the 18th century landscape tradition, and his early commissions closely followed the style of Capability Brown.

However, unlike Brown who was a contractor as well as a designer, Repton operated as a professional consultant advising his clients on how best to lay out and ornament their grounds, often leaving them to implement his ideas as they saw fit. In many cases this involved the production of one of his famous ‘Red Books’ where he set out his recommendations in words and illustrations in neatly bound leather volumes.

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Trellis swathed in climbers clothed verandas and enclosed garden areas (Ashridge ‘Red Book’, The Flower Garden 1813) © 2018 the J Paul Getty Trust. All rights reserved

During Repton’s lifetime the choice of garden plants grew exponentially with new introductions from around the world. Ideas about planting schemes moved on from showcasing individual specimens to massing plants and shrubs for their colours and textures that herald our own gardens today.

We’ve just issued a new short report on choosing plants for those restoring gardens from this late Georgian period.

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Repton’s 1913 Rose Garden at Ashridge heralded the popularity of rose gardens later in the century (Ashridge ‘Red Book’, the Rosary, 1813) © 2018 The J Paul Getty Trust. All rights reserved

He developed a unique form of illustrating his ideas through before and after views, painting the existing scenery on folded flaps of paper which then could be lifted to reveal the proposed designs underneath.

This example shows Repton’s designs from Humphry Repton architecture and landscape designs, 1807-1813 report concerning the gardens at Ashridge, respectfully submitted to the Earl of Bridgewater. Pencil, ink and watercolor on paper. Two-page spread with overlays for different views.

Before

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From the house and terrace looking south: overlay up. Copyright: GRI Digital Collections – Open Content Images

After

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From the house and terrace looking south: overlay down. Copyright: GRI Digital Collections – Open Content Images

A rich legacy of work

Alongside the ideas contained within his Red Books, Repton published three books to outline his approach to landscape gardening: Sketches and Hints on Landscape Gardening (1795), Observations on the Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening (1803) and Fragments on the Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening (1816).

Oblique aerial view of Ashridge c Historic England - Copy
Oblique aerial view of Ashridge estate © Historic England

There are over 300 sites associated with Repton on the National Heritage List for England. Many are open to visit and there are lots of events and activities planned for the bicentenary.

Amongst our favourites are:

  • Kenwood in North London,  Repton was commissioned by Lord Mansfield in 1793 and visited three times between 1793 and 1796. Kenwood is a Grade II* registered park and garden.
Kenwood House. Hampstead, Greater London for guidebook.
Kenwood House. Hampstead © Greater London for guidebook.
  • Sheringham Park in Norfolk are running volunteer led guided walks throughout the year, taking in the views and structures of Repton’s most favourite work. Your guide will take you down the Repton designed carriageway where you can enjoy glimpses of the coastline before moving into the parkland.
General view of Sheringham Hall across the parkland. c Historic England Archive
General view of Sheringham Hall across the parkland. © Historic England Archive AA98_04529
  • Tatton Park in Cheshire will be hosting a guided cycle ride, exploring Repton’s design of 1782. Repton recommended adding interesting objects to create character and comfort in the vast park.
Tatton Park Knutsford Gate Lodge, Cheshire c Historic England
Tatton Park Knutsford Gate Lodge, Cheshire c Historic England
  • Hotel Ensleigh, Devon. This privately run hotel was Duke of Bedford’s hunting lodge is a charming example of an early 19th century fashionable villa and gardens. The gardens are registered Grade I.

 

  • Woburn Abbey in Bedfordshire (registered Grade I). Upon his inheritance of the estate, the 6th Duke of Bedford employed Repton to suggest proposals for landscaping the Abbey grounds. Repton completed his most spectacular Red Book for the estate, filled with ideas, in 1805.
Woburn Abbey landscape park c Historic England
Woburn Abbey landscape park, designed by Repton 1805 © Historic England

Further reading

Learn more about Repton’s  landscapes in the East of England

Find out more about Repton’s landscapes on our website

For a full list of Repton200 events, head over to The Garden Trust website

Hardy Plants and Plantings for Repton and Late Georgian Gardens (1780-1820) – new report

Repton-logo - Copy

Written by Jenifer White and Christopher Laine, two of Historic England’s chartered landscape architects working on the protection and conservation of our parks and gardens heritage.

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