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Humphry Repton’s Hertfordshire creations

PUBLISHED: 10:37 06 August 2018 | UPDATED: 10:37 06 August 2018

Ashridge flower garden (photo: Hertfordshire Archive and Local Studies)

Ashridge flower garden (photo: Hertfordshire Archive and Local Studies)

Hertfordshire Archive and Local Studies

Humphry Repton’s mission was to ‘enrich the general face of the country’. Two centuries after his death, his major landscape designs, including in Herts, still captivate

Humphry Repton began working as a landscape designer five years after the death of the hugely influential Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown in 1783. In his mid-30s, running short of money after dabbling unsuccessfully in occupations including textiles and farming, the son of a Suffolk excise-collector finally found his vocation. His work would go on to include Woburn Abbey, Longleat, Brighton’s Royal Pavillion and London’s Russell Square and his vision can still be admired today in Hertfordshire.

The University of Hertfordshire Press has marked the bicentenary of Repton’s death with a lavishly illustrated volume on his Hertfordshire commissions. The book is the result of several years’ hard work by members of the Hertfordshire Gardens Trust Research Group.

In Pride and Prejudice Elizabeth Bennet comes across Mr Darcy and the two Bingley sisters strolling amid the shrubbery. Invited to join them, Elizabeth 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’.

When Jane Austen moves her characters outdoors into the Regency landscape, we 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 18th century, and Repton, himself a skilled artist, trod a fine line between the art of landscape gardening and the robust pastoral style of his predecessor, Brown. Repton was well-known in Austen’s world, and puts in a personal appearance in Mansfield Park, where the fashion for improving the landscape is addressed directly.

An undated painting by J Trower of Digswell House near Welwyn GC (built 1805-7). The fifth Earl Cowper engaged Repton to improve his estates in the Mimram valley (photo: Hertfordshire Archive and Local Studies)An undated painting by J Trower of Digswell House near Welwyn GC (built 1805-7). The fifth Earl Cowper engaged Repton to improve his estates in the Mimram valley (photo: Hertfordshire Archive and Local Studies)

‘Cut down an avenue! What a pity,’ says Fanny Price, when Mr Rushworth suggests felling the ancient oaks on his estate, Sotherton. 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,’ says Miss Bertram, ‘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.’

Illustration in the Red Book for Panshanger showing an 'after' view looking west (photo: Hertfordshire Archive and Local Studies)Illustration in the Red Book for Panshanger showing an 'after' view looking west (photo: Hertfordshire Archive and Local Studies)

Plenty of Hertfordshire landowners followed Mr Rushworth’s fictional lead and called in Repton to modernise their gardens and grounds, with his signature rolling parkland with pretty clumps of trees, flower gardens, terraces, conservatories and shrubberies. The new book by the Hertfordshire Gardens Trust is an extensive study of these. Using a mix of site surveys and patient detective work in libraries and archives, the trust’s team of volunteer researchers identified 19 Repton sites in Herts, more than any other county. Among Repton’s Hertfordshire commissions are eight of major importance, including Ashridge House, Haileybury College, Panshanger, and Wall Hall.

The research, to establish how far Repton’s ideas were realised and how much survives of them today in the county, was directed by Prof Tom Williamson of the University of East Anglia, who is the book’s co-editor alongside former Hertfordshire archivist Sue Flood.

Repton is famed for the Red Books he produced for 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.’

Beautifully bound in red Moroccan leather, they contain Repton’s watercolours of the ‘before’ views of a landscape, with a hinged flap to lift to reveal the proposed ‘after’. His descriptions of features and improvements are handwritten in elegant copperplate. Six of the original books he produced for Hertfordshire clients survive. Some are held at Hertfordshire Archives and Local Studies in Hertford, including the Red Books for Panshanger and Tewin Water, sites where Repton’s work can still be seen today.

Repton's watercolour of the proposed Ashridge rosarium (photo: Hertfordshire Archive and Local Studies)Repton's watercolour of the proposed Ashridge rosarium (photo: Hertfordshire Archive and Local Studies)

When the fifth Earl Cowper engaged Repton in 1799 to improve Tewin Water and his other estates in the river Mimram valley, Repton proposed giving each 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’.

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 30-year career crossed from the 18th into the 19th century – his style a bridge between 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.

One of his most significant late commissions, which is fully documented and illustrated in Humphry Repton in Hertfordshire, was for a ‘Modern Pleasure Ground’ at Ashridge, then a private house owned by the Duke of Bridgwater, in 1813. In recent years, two of the 15 gardens Repton designed for this commission, the Rose Garden and the Flower Garden, have been restored.

Map of the Ashridge 'Modern Pleasure Ground' (photo: Hertfordshire Archive and Local Studies)Map of the Ashridge 'Modern Pleasure Ground' (photo: Hertfordshire Archive and Local Studies)

Repton more often designed the grounds of local gentry or businessmen, than the great estates of aristocrats. He was highly sensitive to the social aspirations of the moderately wealthy, and their particular concern to dominate, or at least appear to dominate, the countryside around them, something he described as ‘appropriation’. He was also more aware than Brown had been of the close links between the size, role and architectural style of a residence – its particular ‘character’– and the design of its grounds. Tom explains that these concerns need to be viewed in the context of wider contemporary changes in society and economy, especially the growing social importance and influence in the late 18th century of the local gentry and the rising numbers and increasing wealth 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.

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, impatient to have their estates ‘improved’ in the latest style.

In the quest for evidence for the Repton sites in the county, there have been unforgettable moments. After weeks of painstaking searches, a Hertfordshire Garden Trust researcher believed she had tracked down a missing Red Book to a small London museum. She made an appointment with the curator.

‘A small red book was on the table’, she remembers. ‘It was undoubtedly a Repton Red Book bound in red Moroccan leather. When I looked inside, I had a wonderful surprise. The book had not been looked at for decades or even longer, and the sketches were as bright as the day they were drawn.’

Wood Hill House in Essendon with overlay (bottom right) showing Repton's proposed kitchen garden wall  (Sir John Soane's Museum)Wood Hill House in Essendon with overlay (bottom right) showing Repton's proposed kitchen garden wall (Sir John Soane's Museum)

Discover Repton’s Ashridge

A conference on Repton’s work will be held at Ashridge House in association with The Gardens Trust on August 10-11. Details are available from Sally Rouse on 01442 841028 or sally.rouse@ashridge.hult.edu

There are also Ashridge House and garden tours (address: Berkhamsted HP4 1NS) on Thursday afternoons during August.

For more information about the Hertfordshire Gardens Trust, visit hertsgardenstrust.org.uk

Humphry Repton in Hertfordshire: Documents and Landscapes, edited by Sue Flood and Tom Williamson (Hertfordshire University Press, £25), is available now.

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