In this anniversary year, Steven Desmond says modern-day designers can learn from Humphry Repton’s 19th-century experiences and frustrations
When Humphry Repton died in 1818, his reputation was long established as the leading garden designer in this country, with his fame stretching far beyond these shores. He turns up by name as the adviser of choice in Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park, complete with his day rate, and his style is clearly recognisable in a royal garden in Berlin. But for all his universal influence in his own period, can there really still be lessons we can learn from this great name of the past? What can Mr Repton do for us?
The first striking feature of Repton’s rise and progress is that he never meant to be a garden designer. He was a late developer, a career changer, and many of us know what a powerful motivating force that can be. He brought existing skills and a network of contacts to bear on his new vocation, including a considerable facility for drawing scenery, plants, architecture and people. He wrote to his influential friends, essentially telling them he was the new ‘Capability Brown’, inviting them to queue up for his services. He learned some elementary surveying skills.
At first it all went well. Repton had an entrée to polite society, and was a favourite country house weekend guest. His eye was quick, his schemes refined, and he hit on a way of explaining his ideas to clients in a way his rivals could not. Like many modern designers, Repton noticed that his customers could not read a plan, which was fortunate since he was barely able to draw one.
He contracted out that awkward business to surveyors, and concentrated instead on preparing his famous Red Books. These displayed ingenious watercolour before-and-after views alongside explanatory text, enabling his clients to see beyond the technical jargon to a charming world of improved views and a modernised setting of terracing, shrubbery walks and trellised bowers.
Difficulties, though, soon began to crowd in. The intellectual critics at the head of the Picturesque movement, who sought more broken, varied and emotionally charged layouts in the view from the library window, at first saw Repton as one of their own. But he soon realised there had to be a compromise between scholarly rigour and polite comforts, and the prophets denounced him as a turncoat.
Repton’s smooth social skills, which at first served him so well, gradually deserted him, as younger clients increasingly found his social attitudes outdated. One such customer looked at his proposed planting list for the new garden and simply wrote the word ‘Stuff’ across it.
As if all this wasn’t bad enough, virtually all Repton’s career took place against the backdrop of a never-ending war with France. Some things were simply more important than garden design. In the grip of these setbacks, and despite his architectural partners either fleecing him (John Nash) or descending into farcical unprofessionalism (James Wyatt), Repton kept on going.
Over 20 years, his style evolved from post-Brownian serpentine smoothness to the kind of detailed eclecticism that foreshadowed Victorian taste: the geometric parterre, the specialist shrub collection, the sentimental Gothic retreat. Repton’s style is always intelligent, relevant and thoughtful, and shows a particular skill in laying out approach drives which make the most of scenic opportunities.
His surviving work at Blaise Castle, Woburn Abbey, Endsleigh House and Sheringham Park reveal a happy man in tune with the spirit of the age, as England changed from a nation of great estates to the world’s first paradise of the self-made man. As Repton grew older, he became increasingly disillusioned with the duplicitous nature of many of his clients. He had imagined a career of meetings of true minds. Too often he was horrified to see that his proposals were perversely altered in the execution, for which, of course, posterity blamed him.
Lucrative commissions turned to dust as client after client went bust, had a nervous breakdown or just cooled off completely. His greatest frustration came when a client commissioned a Red Book, and kept it on the library table to show their friends, but did not order contractors to carry out the work, leaving Repton with a sprat on his plate where he had imagined a mackerel.
All these events have their modern equivalents. When we look down the long lens of history, everything looks utterly different at first sight, but on closer examination we realise that human nature does not change. Humphry Repton could have been shrewder, better prepared, thicker-skinned, more adaptable. But he was a garden designer, not a ruthless exploiter. He believed that others would share his beliefs in art and elegance.
He made little money in his career, but his is the name we celebrate as the leading stylist of his age, and who, in the end, would not settle for that?
The exhibition ‘Repton Revealed: The Art of Landscape Gardening’ runs from 24 October 2018 to 3 February 2019 at the Garden Museum, London. www.gardenmuseum.org.uk