Humphry Repton in Hertfordshire

Humphry Repton in Hertfordshire: Documents and Landscapes, edited by Sue Flood and Tom Williamson, Hertfordshire University Press. ISBN: 978-1-909291-98-0 Hardback, 304pp, £25

Repton book cover

Humphry Repton (1752-1818), the son of a Suffolk excise-collector, began working as a landscape designer five years after the death of Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown in 1783. In his mid-thirties, running short of money after dabbling unsuccessfully in other occupations including textiles and farming, Repton finally found his vocation. This spring, the University of Hertfordshire Press marks Repton’s bicentenary with a lavishly illustrated volume on his Hertfordshire commissions, the result of several years’ hard work by members of the Hertfordshire Gardens Trust’s (HGT) Research Group.

In Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth Bennet comes across Mr Darcy and the two Bingley sisters strolling in the shrubbery. Invited to join them, she exclaims, No, no stay where you are, you are charmingly grouped and appear to uncommon advantage. The picturesque would be spoilt by admitting the fourth…’. Longbourn, the Bennet family home, is situated in Hertfordshire. Its exact whereabouts has prompted speculation – could the nearby town of Meryton in the novel be Hertford? Or perhaps Ware?

In a famous scene in the novel, the confrontation between Elizabeth Bennet and formidable Lady Catherine de Bourgh, the characters move outside into the garden, which has fashionable elements: “Miss Bennet, there seemed to be a prettyish kind of a little wilderness on one side of your lawn. I should be glad to take a turn in it, if you will favour me with your company, ”    “Go, my dear,” cried her mother, “and shew her ladyship about the different walks. I think she will be pleased with the hermitage.”

When Jane Austen moves her characters out of doors into the Regency landscape, we can find such gentle vignettes parodying the vogue for the ‘picturesque’. Designing a landscape as if composing a painting became fashionable towards the end of the eighteenth century, and Repton, himself a skilled artist, trod a fine line between this ‘Art’ of landscape gardening and the robust style of his predecessor, Brown. He was well known in Jane Austen’s world, and puts in a personal appearance in Mansfield Park, where the fashion for improving the landscape is addressed directly:

“Cut down an avenue! What a pity,” murmurs Fanny Price, when Mr Rushworth, suggests cutting down the avenue of ancient oak trees at his estate, Sotherton. Sotherton is thought to be based on Stoneleigh Abbey, home of Jane Austen’s wealthy relatives, the Leigh family. Repton produced a design for the grounds at Stoneleigh in 1809, two years before she is known to have visited in 1811.

Mr Rushworth has been inspired by a visit to a friend’s house and grounds, which Repton has transformed. In comparison, he says, Sotherton looks like a dismal old prison. “I must try to do something with it, but I do not know what. I hope I shall have some good friend to help me.”

“Your best friend upon such an occasion,” said Miss Bertram calmly, “would be Mr. Repton, I imagine.”

“That is what I was thinking of. …I think I had better have him at once. His terms are five guineas a day.”

Plenty of Hertfordshire landowners followed Mr Rushworth’s fictional lead and called in Repton to modernize their gardens and grounds. Using a mix of site surveys and patient detective work in libraries and archives, the HGT’s team of volunteer researchers identified a total of nineteen Repton sites in Hertfordshire, more than any other county. Among them are eight sites of major importance, including Ashridge House, Haileybury College, Panshanger, and Wall Hall. The research was directed by Professor Tom Williamson of the University of East Anglia, who is the book’s co-editor together with former Hertfordshire archivist Sue Flood.

Repton’s Red Books

Repton is famed for the individual Red Books he produced for his clients. ‘When called upon for my opinion concerning the improvement of a place’, he wrote, ‘I have generally delivered it in writing, bound in a small book, containing maps and sketches, to explain the alterations proposed: this is called the Red Book of the place; and thus my opinions have been diffused over the kingdom in nearly two hundred such manuscript volumes.’ Bound in red Moroccan leather, the books contain Repton’s watercolour paintings of the ‘before’ views of a landscape, with a hinged flap to lift to reveal the ‘after’. His descriptions of landscape features and proposed improvements are handwritten in elegant copperplate. Six of the original books he produced for Hertfordshire clients survive, including the Red Books for Panshanger and Tewin Water, sites where Repton’s work can still be seen today. When the fifth Earl Cowper engaged Humphry Repton in 1799 to improve Tewin Water and his other estates in the River Mimram valley, Repton proposed to give each individual estate ‘a degree of extent and consequence’, while ‘their united lawns will, by extending thro’ the whole valley, enrich the general face of the country’.

However, Repton generally relied on more subtle effects than ‘Capability’ Brown. ‘If Brown was a cosmetic surgeon’, says Tom Williamson, ‘Repton was a make-up artist’. Repton’s thirty-year career crossed from the eighteenth century to the nineteenth, his style a bridge from the landscape parks of Brown to the more structured gardens of the Victorian period. By the end of his career, Repton was designing highly formal gardens, even geometric parterres, features that would have been anathema to Brown.

Repton more often designed the grounds of local gentry or businessmen than the great estates of aristocrats. He was sensitive to the social aspirations of the moderately wealthy. The social importance and influence of local gentry was rising in the late eighteenth century, and there were increasing numbers of merchants and financiers, keen to build ‘villas’ with parks, but often without a significant estate attached, within easy reach of the major cities. Such changes were particularly important in Hertfordshire, and especially in the south of the county, where many wealthy London businessmen bought small manors or even farmhouses and converted them into fashionable residences. Repton’s designs fulfilled their particular concern that their houses should appear to dominate the countryside around them, something he described as ‘appropriation’.

Sometimes these clients did not see eye-to-eye with Repton about the extent of work needed, causing him to write on one occasion that if profit was his employer’s only motivation, the flower garden might as well be sown with potatoes and cabbages.   ‘Good taste’, he wrote loftily, ‘can only be acquired by leisure and observation; it is not therefore to be expected in men whose time is fully employed in the more important acquirement of wealth and fame’. But Repton certainly worked for many such clients in Hertfordshire, newly rich individuals who acquired a country property near London and were impatient to have it ‘improved’ in the latest style.

A conference celebrating Humphry Repton will be held at Ashridge in August 2018  .




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