Humphry Repton (1752–1818).
Water at Wentworth, Yorkshire, color aquatint in Humphry Repton, Observations on the Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening, London, 1803.
Collection of Elizabeth Barlow Rogers.;
Trade card of Humphry Repton (1788), designed by Repton and engraved by Thomas Medland, from the Red Book of Ferney Hall. Album, 1789. Collection of Mrs. J. P. Morgan, Jr.; 1954.17
Born in affluent circumstances, Repton was trained for a commercial career, but he failed in business and retired to a small farm, which proved to be equally unprofitable. He tried his hand at other occupations with no greater success until 1788, when he decided to make his living as a professional landscape designer. An accomplished writer and amateur artist, he had all the necessary skills to express his ideas in illustrated books, such as the manuscript Red Books and his published works, which he used to promote his theories and advertise his services. He inserted this trade card in many of his Red Books and used it to solicit business from potential customers. Through his social connections, he received prestigious commissions from the landed nobility of England, who treated him more like a houseguest than a tradesman. The Prince of Wales invited him to work on the Brighton Pavilion, which he proposed to redesign in an Indian style inspired by the illustrations in Thomas and William Daniell's Oriental Scenery (1795–1807). Thomas Daniell (1749–1840), Hindoo Temples at Bindrabund on the River Jumna, illustration in Oriental Scenery. London, 1795–1807 (PML 75754–64) Deep in debt, the prince could not pay him to carry out his plans, but Repton published them nonetheless in a splendid portfolio, 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.
William Gilpin (1724–1804), River-Views, Bays, and Sea Coasts. Album, pen and brown ink, brown and gray-brown wash, over preliminary indications in graphite, on paper washed with ochre, 1781. Purchased as the gift of Mrs. Enid A. Haupt; 1978.39.
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.