The Garden Museum is exploring the work of dandy landscape gardener Humphry Repton via his famous Red Books, which offer fascinating glimpses into the Georgian landscape
His name may not resonate as much as Capability Brown’s, but the landscapes that Humphry Repton (1752 – 1818) left us show him to be no less capable or talented than his predecessor.
And although very different in character, like Capability, Humphry Repton was prolific; designing around 400 English landscapes and gardens. In fact he was the original ‘landscape gardener’ (having coined the term) whose designs include Longleat in Wiltshire, Woburn Abbey in Bedfordshire and London’s Russell Square.
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And whereas Brown was a hands-on gardener, Repton was evidently a man of many contrasting talents. Perhaps his keenest skill was that of the salesman who consciously styled himself as Brown’s heir using what have become renowned as the Red Books (so named by Repton due to the distinctive red leather bindings he favoured). He used these to present his proposed improvements and show ‘before’ and ‘after’ views of the landscape.
Ingenious in design and each one unique, clients would open them to see Repton’s delicate watercolours of their garden as it currently appeared, before lifting a flap to reveal Repton’s new vision for the garden as it could be – provided they paid Repton handsomely to make the design a reality.
As pages are turned, trees rise or are felled, a stream becomes a lake, an untidy farm becomes a genteel park, or, as is the case in the Sundridge Park Red Book, a house is suddenly replaced with another, grander manor.
“Probably the most seductive client presentations ever made”
Throughout, the watercolours are interspersed with notes from Repton, often in a conversational style, recalling walks with the owner of the house during his visit. Compliments are followed by criticism, very often of the designer who had preceded Repton. These hallowed books are the focus of this Garden Museum exhibition, which celebrates the bicentenary of his death by bringing together 23 of them, together with surviving watercolours and prints.
Christopher Woodward, Director of the Garden Museum, describes opening one of Repton’s Red Books as “one of the great treats of garden history. They’re probably the most seductive client presentations ever made.”
As well as delving into these fascinating snapshots of high class Georgian marketing, the exhibition also looks at Repton himself, at his comparatively late start in landscape design (at the ripe old age of 36) and his use of a wheelchair later in life, after a carriage accident, from which he continued his work and his ‘relationship’ with the legacy of Capability Brown.
“Repton saw himself as the heir to Capability Brown, but they were as different as chalk and cheese,” adds Woodard. “Brown was solid, silent, and masterful and made his fortune by digging and planting, not by drawing designs. Repton had been a dandy, a failed entrepreneur, a social satirist and an artist before he set up as a landscape designer.
“He would have been great fun to travel through Jane Austen’s England with. And he was a restless, melancholy man who knew that his landscapes would change or vanish and saw these Red Books as his greatest work – and as the legacy of his genius’.
The exhibition includes objects from around the world, and from public and private collections, including the Royal Collection Trust, the British Library, Royal Academy of Arts and The Oak Spring Garden Foundation.
A specially commissioned digital animation of Armley, a Repton Garden in Leeds, also allows visitors to step inside and experience the magic of Repton’s designs.
The exhibition is curated by Stephen Daniels, Professor Emeritus at the University of Nottingham, who has studied Repton for 30 years, and is author of the definitive guide to Repton.
Repton Revealed: The Art of Landscape Gardening is at the Garden Museum until February 2019.
London, Greater London
The Garden Museum explores and celebrates British gardens and gardening through its collection, temporary exhibitions, events and garden. Visitors will also see a permanent display of paintings, tools, ephemera and historic artefacts: a glimpse into the uniquely British love affair with gardens. Whether you are an enthusiastic amateur gardener, more…