Today is the birthday (1752) of Humphry Repton, the last great English landscape designer of the 18th century, often regarded as the successor to Capability Brown, and a link to the more intricate and eclectic styles of the 19th century. Repton was born in Bury St Edmunds, the son of a collector of excise, John Repton, and Martha (née Fitch). In 1762 his father set up a transport business in Norwich, where Humphry attended Norwich Grammar School. At age 12 he was sent to the Netherlands to learn Dutch and prepare for a career as a merchant. However, Repton was befriended by a wealthy Dutch family and the trip may have done more to stimulate his interest in other pursuits such as sketching and gardening.
On his return to Norwich, Repton was apprenticed to a textile merchant, then, after marriage to Mary Clarke in 1773, set up in the business himself. He was not successful, and when his parents died in 1778 used his modest legacy to move to a small country estate at Sustead, near Aylsham in Norfolk. Repton tried his hand as a journalist, dramatist, artist, political agent, and as confidential secretary to his neighbor William Windham of Felbrigg Hall during Windham’s very brief stint as Secretary to the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. Repton also joined John Palmer in a venture to reform the mail-coach system, but while the scheme ultimately made Palmer’s fortune, Repton again lost money. Consequently, Repton’s childhood friend, James Edward Smith, encouraged him to study botany and gardening.
To save his dwindling resources, Repton moved to a modest cottage in Hare Street near Romford in Essex. In 1788, aged 36 and with four children and no secure income, he hit on the idea of combining his sketching skills with his limited experience of laying out grounds at Sustead to become a ‘landscape gardener’ (a term he himself coined). Since the death of Capability Brown in 1783, there was no single figure who dominated English garden design. Repton was ambitious to fill this gap and sent circulars around his contacts in the upper classes advertising his services. He was at first an avid defender of Brown’s views, contrasted with those of Richard Payne Knight and Uvedale Price, but later adopted a more moderate position. His first paid commission was Catton Park, to the north of Norwich, in 1788.
That Repton, with no real experience of practical horticulture, became an overnight success, is a tribute to his undeniable talent, but also to the original way he presented his work. To help clients visualize his designs, Repton produced ‘Red Books’ (so called for their binding) with explanatory text and watercolors with a system of overlays to show ‘before’ and ‘after’ views. In this he differed from Capability Brown, who worked almost exclusively with plans and rarely illustrated or wrote about his work. Repton’s overlays were soon copied by the Irish-Philadelphian Bernard McMahon in his 1806 American Gardener’s Calendar.
To understand what was special about Repton we should examine how he differed from Brown in more detail. Brown worked for many of the wealthiest aristocrats in Britain, carving huge landscape parks out of old formal gardens and agricultural land. Repton worked for equally important clients, such as the Dukes of Bedford and Portland, but he was usually fine-tuning earlier work, often that of Brown himself. Where Repton got the chance to lay out grounds from scratch it was generally on a much more modest scale. On these smaller estates, where Brown would have surrounded the park with a continuous perimeter belt, Repton cut vistas through to ‘borrowed’ items such as church towers, making them seem part of the designed landscape. At Catton Park, for example, he cut down trees to incorporate a view of the spire of Norwich cathedral. He designedapproach drives and lodges to enhance impressions of size and importance of the main house, and even introduced monogramed milestones on the roads around some estates, for which he was satirized by Thomas Love Peacock as ‘Marmaduke Milestone, esquire, a Picturesque Landscape Gardener’ in Headlong Hall.
Around 1787, Richard Page (1748-1803), landowner of Sudbury, to the west of Wembley decided to convert the Page family home ‘Wellers’ into a country seat and turn the fields around it into a private estate. In 1792 Page employed Humphry Repton, by then famous as a landscape architect, to convert the farmland into wooded parkland and to make improvements to the house. Repton often called the areas he landscaped ‘parks’, thus it is to Repton that Wembley Park owes its name. The original site that Repton transformed was later built on in the construction of the short-lived Watkin’s Tower. The area landscaped by Repton was larger than the current Wembley Park. It included the southern slopes of Barn Hill to the north, where Repton planted trees and started building a ‘prospect house’ – a gothic tower offering a view over the parkland. Repton may also have designed the thatched lodge that survives on Wembley Hill Road, to the west of Wembley Park. It is in the cottage orné style frequently used by Repton. Regrettably, Repton’s Red Book for Wembley Park, which would give a definitive answer, has not survived.
Capability Brown was a large-scale contractor, who not only designed, but also arranged the realization of his work. By contrast, Repton acted as a consultant, charging for his Red Books and sometimes staking out the ground, but leaving his client to arrange the actual execution. Thus, many of Repton’s 400 or so designs remained wholly or partially unfinished and, while Brown became rich, Repton’s income was never more than comfortable.
Early in his career, Repton defended Brown’s reputation during the ‘picturesque controversy.’ In 1794 Richard Payne Knight and Uvedale Price simultaneously published vicious attacks on the ‘meagre genius of the bare and bald’, criticizing his smooth, serpentine curves as bland and unnatural and championing rugged and intricate designs, composed according to ‘picturesque’ principles of landscape painting. Repton’s defence of Brown rested partly on the impracticality of many picturesque ideas. As a professional, Repton had to produce practical designs for his clients. Paradoxically, however, as his career progressed Repton drew more and more on picturesque ideas. One major criticism of Brown’s landscapes was the lack of a formal setting for the house, with rolling lawns sweeping right up to the front door. Repton re-introduced formal terraces, balustrades, trellis work and flower gardens around the house in a way that became common practice in the 19th century. He also designed one of the most famous ‘picturesque’ landscapes in Britain at Blaise Castle, near Bristol. At Woburn Abbey, Repton foreshadowed another 19th-century development, creating themed garden areas including a Chinese garden, American garden, arboretum and forcing garden. At Stoneleigh Abbey in 1808, Repton foreshadowed another 19th-century development, creating a perfect cricket pitch called ‘home lawn’ in front of the west wing, and a bowling green lawn between the gatehouse and the house.
Success at Woburn earned him a further commission from the Duke of Bedford. He designed the central gardens in Russell Square, the centerpiece of the Bloomsbury development. The gardens were restored with the additional help of archaeological investigation and archival photographs, to the original plans and are now listed as Grade II by Historic England. The square was to be a flagship commission for Repton and was one of three within the central London.
Buildings played an important part in many of Repton’s landscapes. In the 1790s he often worked with the relatively unknown architect John Nash, whose loose compositions suited Repton’s style. Nash benefited greatly from the exposure, while Repton received a commission on building work. Around 1800, however, the two fell out, probably over Nash’s refusal to credit the work of Repton’s architect son John Adey Repton. Thereafter John Adey and Repton’s younger son George Stanley Repton often worked with their father, although George continued to work in Nash’s office as well. In 1811 Repton suffered a serious carriage accident which often left him needing to use a wheelchair for mobility. He died in 1818 and is buried in the graveyard of St Michael’s Church at Aylsham in north Norfolk.
You could pick any 18th century English recipe you like to celebrate Repton, but I thought I would choose a Dutch one of the same period, because he spent time in the Netherlands as a boy, and seems to have been inspired by a Dutch family to take up sketching and (ultimately) landscape design. The recipe is from De volmaakte Hollandsche Keuken-meid […] (The perfect Dutch Kitchen maid . . .), written by “a distinguished lady, passed away recently.” The first edition was in 1746, and it was reprinted several times up to 1857. Maybe Repton ate these “fine cakes.” I pinched the Dutch version from here http://coquinaria.nl/en/excellent-cookies/ where you can also find a modern interpretation, which I have not tried. The English translation on the site is poor, so the one below is mostly my own – with more accurate interpretations of the measures – not the incorrect ones as in the original translation. Given the incorrect measures in the original, I would not trust the interpretation. The pint, ounce, and pound cited are equivalent (roughly) to Imperial measure. They became the names for metric measures after the Treaty of Vienna, when only France and the Netherlands used the metric system, but this recipe predates that time. Even with my better translation, I do not trust the measures (especially not the pint of yeast).
Fyne kaaks, hoe men die bakken zal.
Neemt een half vierdevat bloem van Tarwe Meel, het beste dat men krygen kan ; stampt het heel fyn, met een weinigje zout daar onder, een half loot nagelen, een half loot foelie, een half loot note-muscaat en een half once kaneel, doet dit gemengd met drie vierendeel poejer-suiker onder het Meel, en kneedt het ter degen door met anderhalf pond booter : doet ‘er dan by een mingelen Room met een pintje gist, met 12 eijeren, acht zonder het wit en vier met het wit, een weinigje Roozewater en Ambergrys : als het wel doorkneed en gerezen is, dan moet men ‘er nog 3 ponden korenten en een pond rosynen zonder korrels, dooreen, wel fyn gesneeden by doen : Maakt het deeg tot Kaakjes en zet het drie uuren te bakken in een laauwe Oven ; dan haald het ‘er uit en bestrykt ze met het wit van een ei en rosewater, en met suiker bestrooid, zet ze nog eens in den Oven om de suiker te doen kandilizeren, is delicaat om te eeten.
Fine cakes, how to bake them.
Take half a four-vessel (4 cups) of wheat flour, the best one can get. Pound it very finely, with a little salt, a half loot (1 loot/lood = 10 gms) of cloves, a half loot of mace, a half ounce of nutmeg and a half ounce of cinnamon. Add this, tempered with ¾ pound powdered sugar, to the flour, and knead it well with one and a half pounds of butter. Then add a mingel (5 cups) of cream with a pint of yeast, 12 eggs, eight without the white and four with the white, a little rosewater and ambergris. When it is kneaded thoroughly and risen well enough, then add 3 pounds of currants and 1 pound of raisins without pits, finely chopped. Make the dough into little cakes and set them to bake for three hours in a lukewarm oven. Then take them out and coat them with the white of an egg and rosewater, and sprinkle with sugar. Put them in the oven once more to caramelize the sugar. This is a joy to eat.