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Humphry Repton (1752–1818).
Photography: Graham Haber, 2010.
Repton presented his advice to his clients in the form of Red Books, a term referring to their characteristic red morocco bindings. A typical Red Book would begin with a ground plan summarizing his proposals. An introductory epistle would address the client in suitably deferential terms and recapitulate the terms of the commission. Then would follow a description of the client's property, commending its scenic attractions, noting its defects, and suggesting how improvements could be made. The approach to the house, the park, the pleasure ground, and other important features would be discussed in separate sections accompanied by watercolor illustrations. Some of the watercolors would be equipped with overlays allowing an easy back-and-forth comparison of the property in its present state with Repton's recommendations for its future embellishment. In a mellifluous conclusion, Repton would urge the client to follow his advice, which, he implied, would not only enhance the enjoyment of the estate but also display it in a manner befitting the owner's good taste, family pride, and social status.
Repton regarded his Red Books as working plans, advertisements, souvenirs, and a convenient source of documentation he could use in his publications. His Red Book of the Welbeck estate provided the "groundwork" of his Sketches and Hints on Landscape Gardening, which contains extracts from fifty-six other Red Books duly cited at the front of the volume. He claimed to have made more than four hundred of them by the time he had reached the end of his career. More than a hundred survive, an indication of their importance to his clients and their value to scholars and collectors.
Humphry Repton. Red Book of Ferney Hall. Album, 1789. Collection of Mrs. J. P. Morgan, Jr., Gift of Junius S. Morgan and Henry S. Morgan; 1954.17
Repton prepared this Red Book for Samuel Phipps of Lincoln's Inn, a prosperous attorney, who had purchased the Ferney Hall estate around 1787. Called to the bar in 1763, Phipps amassed a fortune in the service of "grand families," nabobs, and political luminaries, such as the third duke of Portland (one of Repton's first and most important patrons). He also owned the estate of Barmoor Castle in Northumberland. After taking possession of Ferney Hall, he hired a local landscaper to lay out the grounds, but, dissatisfied with the results or dissuaded by his friends, he invited Repton to inspect his property over the course of three days in September 1789.
This commission came just at the beginning of Repton's career, when he was still developing the format of his Red Books. In this one, he did his best to impress his client with his practical expertise, Picturesque sensibilities, and cultivated taste. Unlike the local nurseryman, Repton could deal with Phipps as an equal, if not in social status then as an educated gentleman, fully capable of describing the delights of a rocky ravine by quoting Spenser and Ovid. Phipps appears to have been pleased by Repton's advice, but he died in 1791, before he could act on it.
Phipps was not the only one to take a personal interest in this Red Book, which became "Exhibit A" in the Picturesque debate. Not far from Ferney Hall resided Richard Payne Knight, a member of Parliament, collector of antiquities, and author of several books on art and aesthetics. Knight had designed his own landscape garden in accordance with Picturesque principles. In due deference, Repton consulted with this distinguished neighbor, who initially "dreaded the approach of a professed improver" but discovered that Repton was "a man of liberal education" and that they agreed in many matters of style. No doubt Knight approved of the plan to demolish the formal terrace and restore the original view of pastoral scenery outside the windows of the front rooms. He might have liked the idea of pruning the trees outside the drawing room window to give a glimpse of a distant pool. He claimed to have had "pleasing expectations" about Repton's work—but the plans he saw "instantly undeceived me."
Did Phipps show the Red Book to Knight? If so, it failed to please this arbiter of taste, who could have been a valuable ally but turned out to be a formidable opponent. He apparently took exception to certain economizing measures and attempts to preserve a few of the formal amenities in the grounds, which Repton wanted to give an "appearance of dress." The proposal to ornament the Common with clumps of trees might have smacked of "Brownism" in Knight's opinion. In 1794 he launched the first salvo of the Picturesque controversy with the publication of The Landscape: A Didactic Poem, a satiric attack on the garden designs of Brown and Repton. Caught off guard, Repton had been expecting to publish his Sketches and Hints on Landscape Gardening in 1794, but he held it back until the following year so that he could include supplementary remarks responding to his critics. Knight fired back with a second edition of The Landscape, containing a critique of the plans for Ferney Hall, now condemned in every respect except for a proposal to preserve a venerable orchard, "which would have pleased a landscape painter." More's the pity, said Knight, since this was the only proposal to have been rejected by his neighbor, a knowledgeable and cultivated person but utterly in thrall to conventional ideas of garden design. Knight could not have described the plans and Phipps's reaction to them in such convincing detail unless he had seen the Red Book, a provocative document, which all too eloquently outlined the grounds for debate.
Situated in Shropshire, five miles from Ludlow, the Ferney Hall estate at one point extended over eight hundred acres. Now the property has dwindled to ten acres consisting of some lawns, a pool, an orchard, a walled garden, and a woodland walk. Repton would not have approved of the present red brick Victorian mansion, largely restored but at such a cost that it was put up for sale in June 2009.
Photography: Graham Haber, 2010.
Designs for the Pavillon at Brighton (1808).
Repton's fame grew to the point where he became a target for satire and a subject of controversy. His affectations and ingratiating manners gained him the reputation of a "coxcomb." He appeared as the fatuous Marmaduke Milestone in Thomas Love Peacock's comic novel Headlong Hall. Jane Austen took a swipe at Reptonian improvements in Mansfield Park, although actually she was not mocking him so much as his disciples' craven admiration of fashionable novelties. He stoutly defended himself against the attacks of gentlemen amateurs who condemned his businesslike approach to landscape design and advocated instead a style based more closely on the principles of the Picturesque.
The Brighton project marked the peak of Repton's career. In his later years, he obtained fewer commissions from his usual clientele—wealthy landowners, who had to cope with political disputes, social stress, and economic turmoil during the Napoleonic Wars. Health problems and injuries sustained in a carriage accident confined Repton to a wheelchair and made it increasingly difficult for him to survey an estate. An invalid, he retired from active life to tend a modest garden by his cottage, where he died in 1818.
Repton owed some of his landscaping ideas and the rudiments of his watercolor technique to William Gilpin (1724–1804), author of illustrated travel books extolling the beauties of Picturesque scenery. Gilpin's writings and his innovative aquatint illustrations helped to popularize the Picturesque, an aesthetic based on the fashionable landscape paintings of the day. An Arcadian pastorale by Claude Lorrain or a wilderness scene by Salvator Rosa could provide a frame of reference for viewing nature and a worthy model for garden design. In his own work, Repton sought to achieve a painterly composition of lawn, lake, and trees, but he was also looking after the "comfort and convenience" of his clients. This pragmatic approach harkens back to his illustrious predecessor Lancelot "Capability" Brown (1716–1783), famous for the parks and pleasure grounds he had designed at Stowe, Blenheim, and other grand estates.
Brown's reputation came under attack, however, by proponents of the Picturesque who thought that his style was dull and monotonous in comparison to the enchanting and dramatic landscapes they had learned to appreciate in paintings. They preferred gardens with rustic charm and naturalistic features like brushy woodlands rather than clumps of trees in a placid expanse of lawn. Unfairly, perhaps, they accused Repton of the same stultifying uniformity while also implying that he was so caught up in the routine of his profession that he could not discern the true beauties of the English countryside. They believed that it was better to do it yourself: Instead of hiring outside experts to "torture their estates," country gentlemen should decide on their own how to bring out the best in their parks and pleasure grounds in accordance with the principles of art and the guidance of nature.
Repton responded to their criticisms with his magnificently illustrated Sketches and Hints on Landscape Gardening (1795), along with other publications. The battle lines were drawn, others joined the fray, and some went so far as to question the patriotism of their adversaries. Gracious as always, Repton defended his position during this debate more in sorrow than in anger. He insisted that a garden should be fit for human habitation, a fundamental principle not to be sacrificed to Picturesque effects, although he would be glad to use them in the proper places. Here, for example, is one of his more Picturesque designs rendered in a style similar to the monochrome oval watercolors of Gilpin—as if he were paying tribute to the master.