Bicentenary celebration of Humphry Repton and his ‘Red Books’

In 2018, the Gardens Trust is leading a national celebration of the life, work and legacy of Humphry Repton, the last great landscape gardener of the eighteenth century, responsible for some 400 landscapes across Britain, including Longleat in Wiltshire, Woburn Abbey in Bedfordshire and Russell Square in London. More than 200 sites and project stakeholders coordinated by the Gardens Trust, from English Heritage to local volunteer and friends’ groups, are coming together to run hundreds of Repton-inspired activities, ranging from conferences to special public garden openings. The ‘Sharing Repton’ project will pilot five activities for local communities in Repton-designed parks and gardens, with a long-term view to nurturing a new wave of volunteers and supporters for these heritage assets. These pilot activities will be delivered across five regions: London, South West, East Midlands, West Midlands, East. There will be a range of events and activities taking place across the UK for all to enjoy, including walks, talks, study days, and exhibitions. In 1788, at the age of 36, he set himself up as a ‘landscape gardener’. Repton is in fact credited with inventing the job title. In order to launch his new career, Repton approached his social contacts to ask for work improving their estates. His first two landscape jobs were at Catton Hall for Jeremiah Ives, a textile merchant and Mayor of Catton, and for Thomas Coke of Holkham Hall in Norfolk. Both survive today, Catton as a public park run by the Catton Park Trust, and Holkham Hall as a privately-owned home open by ticket and for events. Other commissions were to include Blaise Castle in Bristol, Dyrham Park in Gloucestershire, Endsleigh Cottage in Devon, London’s Russell Square, Stoneleigh Abbey in Warwickshire, Tatton Park in Cheshire, Uppark House in Sussex, Valleyfield in Fife and Woburn Abbey, Bedfordshire.

He died on 24 March 1818 and is buried in St Michael’s Church, Aylsham in Norfolk. Repton wanted to fill the gap left by the death of Capability Brown in 1783. He initially championed Brown’s landscape style but later adopted the ideas of the picturesque movement. His work therefore links the landscape design of the eighteenth century and the gardenesque movement of the early Victorian years. His work reintroduced terraces, gravel walks and flower beds into the area around the house, to provide a foreground for views of the landscape. Repton also designed separate flower gardens, with more elaborate ornamental or themed planting, a style which became popular in the nineteenth century. Much of his work included improvements to existing landscape schemes at the estates of aristocratic clients like the Dukes of Bedford and Portland, but interestingly also included designs for much smaller properties as his career coincided with war, economic instability, and the rise of the ‘nouveau riche’. The way Repton presented his landscape designs was a key part of his success. He produced ‘Red Books’ or folios of his plans, drawings, maps and a description of the improvements he proposed to make. They famously include watercolour paintings with overlays showing ‘before’ and ‘after’ views of the estate. His ideas about landscape design still continue to influence designers today.


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