Humphry Repton, the last great landscape designer of the Georgian era, advised 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.
Repton’s 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.
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.
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.
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.
Here is a Historic England report on choosing plants for those restoring gardens from this late Georgian period.
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.
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).
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.
- Sheringham Park in Norfolk runs 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.
- Tatton Park in Cheshire hosts guided cycle rides, exploring Repton’s design of 1782. Repton recommended adding interesting objects to create character and comfort in the vast park.
- 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 is 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.
Written by Jenifer White and Christopher Laine