It is Repton 200 this year – the bi-centenary of Humphry Repton’s death in 1818. Repton, recognised as the first person to coin and then use the title ‘landscape gardener’, produced 400 or more designs and plans for gardens great and small, many of which were in the Eastern Counties.
He was born in Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk, and baptised there in St Mary’s Church on 5 May 1752. His first career as a cloth merchant wasn’t long-lived; in 1786 he styled himself ‘landscape gardener’ and it is clear that this ‘local boy’ definitely made good in that capacity. From then until his death in 1818 he fulfilled a series of commissions producing iconic Red Books or folios showing the property ‘before’ and, by turning a flap on the page, revealing the ‘after’: how it would look once refreshed and designed by him. His first commission was for Catton Park in Old Catton, north of Norwich, Norfolk. Many of the Red Books are still in existence and a number are in Suffolk.
The celebration of his bi-centenary is being marked at many of the properties he was commissioned to work on and the numerous events can be tracked on The Gardens Trust website (thegardenstrust.org/campaigns/celebrating-humphry-repton-2018 and also at thegardenstrust.org/events-archive/tags/repton).
Estates where he worked include Tatton Park, Cheshire; Welbeck Abbey, Nottinghamshire; Sheringham, Norfolk and Woburn Abbey, Bedfordshire. In Suffolk his commissions included Shrubland Hall, Glemham Hall, Henham Park, Livermere Park, Tendring Hall, Wherstead Park, Broke Hall, Culford Hall and Glevering Hall.
The official proceedings of the Repton 200 season started with great gusto in Aylsham Parish Church, Norfolk, in the grounds of which Repton is buried together with his widow Mary, and his fourth son William. Full details of events taking place in Norfolk.
I was fortunate to be invited to the start of Woburn Abbey’s celebrations, which began with the opening by Alan Titchmarsh MBE of an exhibition celebrating Repton’s work for the Dukes of Bedford. The exhibition runs until 28 October 2018 and showcases the relationship between him and one of his greatest clients. It was wonderful to see on public display for the first time the elaborate and comprehensive Red Book for Woburn, commissioned in 1804. Repton was also involved in other work the Bedford properties in Devon at Endsleigh and in Russell Square in London.
Repton’s work at at Woburn Abbey can be enjoyed today as this historic 28-acre landscape has been extensively restored based on his original plans of 1804.
One of the garden owners whom I interviewed for Secret Gardens of East Anglia, George Carter of Silverstone Farm, has, throughout his working life, been a devotee of Repton. I was delighted to receive a review copy of Setting the Scene: A Garden Design Masterclass from Repton to the Modern Age by George Carter from publishers Pimpernel Press. I reviewed it for House & Garden Magazine, and a shortened version of the review that follows here was published in the June issue. The book was officially launched at the Garden Museum earlier this week.
Review: Setting the Scene by George Carter (Pimpernel Press, £50)
This is the year of the bi-centenary of Humphry Repton – the man who coined the term ‘landscape gardener’. In Setting the Scene George Carter, one of today’s leading garden designers, offers his homage to Repton in the shape of this masterclass overview of his own work.
He has distilled his garden design and other project work over the past 30 into a reflective, useful and lively set of chapter essays illustrated largely with his own photographs and specially commissioned work by leading garden photographer Marianne Majerus.
Thoughtful and formal in many ways, there is also a relaxed, comfortable feeling, as if you are a participant in this three-decades long conversation between George and Repton. George cites Repton’s famed Red Books presented to clients to show what he could do to transform their landscapes, and his four works on gardening and landscape, as the major inspiration for his own work.
George has a similar approach to Repton’s for outlining his suggestions and shares the same headings for each chapter that Repton used in the Red Books to present ideas to clients. Repton favoured before and after watercolour illustrations, with flaps to reveal or hide the transformations. George uses photography and plans to achieve the same effect. While Repton’s designs were for large estates, George asserts that the nuggets he offers here can as easily be applied to gardens of all sizes.
The discourse that leads back and forth from today to Repton under headings such as plan, character, the approach, walks and drives, water in the garden, garden furniture and so on, flows from the Repton quotations that head each chapter.
George notes that his own two-acre garden at Silverstone Farm, Norfolk (which I saw for the first time in 2016) ‘is about as far as you can get from Repton’s aesthetic, but nevertheless I have borrowed many elements in it from him.’
A farmhouse, though, was the type of building that Repton ‘wouldn’t have countenanced for his clients.’ Clearly such a dwelling was not suitable for persons of taste in the late 18th century. Paradoxically, though Repton would have considered a ‘cottage’ as ‘long as it had been suitably elevated,’ to a cottage orné.
In many instances George has been invited to update or make ‘interventions’ in gardens with Reptonian or other historic connections. As Repton was, so also is George clear (in the chapter on Situation) that ‘Character teaches what is advisable whereas Situation tells what is possible to be done.’ For George, identifying the individuality of every location makes it easier to ‘enhance what is good and to suppress or hide what is unattractive.’
Highlighting his work in gardens as varied as Somerletyon Hall, Norfolk; Tilbury Hall, Essex; Columbine Hall, Suffolk and Thenford, Oxfordshire, he shows how relevant and adaptable Repton’s ideas are for gardens and landscapes today. And equally, it is clear that George continues the tradition of designers offering ideas and practical advice to clients.
He makes many comparisons between what he offers his clients and how or what Repton offered. Ideas and practicality are paramount to George, who is also a maker of garden furniture and ‘props’, that he conjures out of modern materials, in many instances, to imitate ‘real’, more substantial items. For this reason, I found the juxtaposition of a photograph of George at work in the Barn at Silverstone Farm with Repton’s formal trade card illustrating his surveying skills and showing the scale of landscapes that he aspired to transform, an appealing counterbalance (pages 4–5).