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Humphry Repton (1752–1818).
Photography: Graham Haber, 2010.
a Seat of
George Holme Summer Esqr.
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 Hatchlands. Album, 1800.Collection of Mrs. J. P. Morgan, Jr., Gift of Junius S. Morgan and Henry S. Morgan; 1954.16
Hatchlands is an estate in Surrey with a handsome brick manor notable for the interior decoration designed by Robert Adam. William Brightwell Sumner purchased the property in 1770, after having made a fortune in the East India Company. His eldest son, George Holme Sumner, inherited it in 1791 and hired Repton in 1800 to recommend the improvements recorded in this album. A member of Parliament and colonel in the Surrey militia, the younger Sumner may have learned about Repton's achievements through word of mouth, printed accounts of the Picturesque controversy, or direct observation of other Surrey estates refashioned by the master.
What he made of his Red Book is hard to tell, but he seems to have followed at least some of its instructions. In Repton's opinion, the road came too close to the house, the front of the house deserved a more fashionable facade, and the view from the dining room window would have been improved by building an orangery on an empty stretch on land. By tending to these matters, Sumner could change "a large red house by the side of a high road, to a Gentleman-like residence in the midst of a Park." Such an argument would have been hard to resist, but Sumner decided that he liked the red brick facade the way it was. He did succeed, however, in renovating his parkland, which survives today as a National Trust property of four hundred acres, including a flower garden designed by Gertrude Jekyll.
Hatchlands. Photograph courtesy of Alec Cobbe, Cobbe Collection Trust, Hatchlands.
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.