The Rep­ton ef­fect

Kent Life - - Garden Life - WORDS: El­iz­a­beth Cairns PHO­TOS: Kent Gar­dens Trust

Kent Gar­dens Trust re­veals new dis­cov­er­ies about land­scape gar­dener Humphry Rep­ton’s

in­flu­ence in Kent in his bi­cen­te­nary year

Most peo­ple have heard of Ca­pa­bil­ity Brown, the cre­ator of the English Land­scape Gar­den, but Humphry Rep­ton (1752-1818) is hardly known.

This is sur­pris­ing, be­cause in his day he was the most no­table and in­flu­en­tial de­signer of gar­dens, men­tioned by Jane Austen in Mans­field Park, and his the­o­ries still res­onate to­day.

Although Rep­ton, like Brown, cre­ated parks for the landed aris­toc­racy, he also de­signed gar­dens for the grow­ing num­ber of pro­fes­sional classes who wished their el­e­gant vil­las to be en­hanced by an equally fash­ion­able en­trance, car­riage­way, park and plea­sure ground.

He de­signed walks and ter­races around the house where ladies could walk and en­joy colour and scent with­out dirty­ing their feet; he cre­ated rose gar­dens with ar­bours, per­go­las and for­mal pools and foun­tains.

He in­tro­duced plea­sure gar­dens with wind­ing walks through lawns planted with ex­otic shrubs and trees; he was adept at screen­ing out unattrac­tive fea­tures in the neigh­bour­ing land­scape and cre­at­ing the il­lu­sion of a more ex­pan­sive es­tate than was ac­tu­ally the case.

Rep­ton was a prac­ti­cal man who saw house and gar­den as a sin­gle en­tity to be en­joyed and lived in. The views from the in­te­rior of the house were as im­por­tant to him as the dis­tant prospect of the house.

This ap­proach, plus his more dec­o­ra­tive style of de­sign, have much in com­mon with con­tem­po­rary gar­den de­sign and the the­o­ries set out in his writ­ings are still rel­e­vant now.

Rep­ton was a tal­ented artist and would write up his pro­pos­als to his clients in a book il­lus­trated with coloured draw­ings show­ing the grounds as they were, with a flap that when lifted up would re­veal his vi­sion for their im­prove­ment.

These books were most of­ten bound in red Morocco leather and be­came known as Rep­ton’s Red Books. About 100 of these ex­quis­ite works sur­vive, mostly in mu­se­ums and many in the USA.

Rep­ton ad­vised on five sites which are within the present county bound­ary and Kent Gar­dens Trust has now pub­lished a book, Humphry Rep­ton in Kent, to mark the bi-cen­te­nary of his death. These sites il­lus­trate his ma­ture style well.


The first and most im­por­tant of Rep­ton’s com­mis­sions in Kent was Cob­ham Hall for Lord Darn­ley, where he was in­volved for 25 years from 1790 un­til his death.

He later re­called his work there with some pride: “The house is no longer a huge pile stand­ing naked in a vast graz­ing ground... Its walls are en­riched with roses and jas­mines, its apart­ments are per­fumed with odours from flow­ers sur­round­ing it on ev­ery side and the an­i­mals

which en­liven the land­scape are not ad­mit­ted as an an­noy­ance, while the views of the park are im­proved by the rich fore­ground, over which they are seen from the ter­races in the gar­den. ... all around is neat­ness, el­e­gance and com­fort.”

The gar­dens have been re­stored re­cently and much of Rep­ton’s work can still be seen.


In 1797 Rep­ton was com­mis­sioned by the pa­per mag­nate James What­man to rec­om­mend im­prove­ments to the grounds of Vinters Park, near Maid­stone.

His re­port in­cludes sev­eral im­prove­ments to the en­trance drive to pro­vide glimpses of the house; con­vert­ing ploughed land into park­land as be­ing ‘more in har­mony with the res­i­dence of el­e­gance and com­fort.’

Ponds would be cre­ated in the val­ley to pro­vide a ‘glit­ter of wa­ter from the house’ and the val­ley would be ‘em­bel­lished in pic­turesque fash­ion with a cov­ered seat thatched like a Doric por­tico or a Swiss cot­tage.’

James What­man died in 1798 but Rep­ton’s pro­pos­als for new car­riage­ways were car­ried out 30 to 40 years later and the views from the house over the park were even­tu­ally im­proved just as he had sug­gested.

Vinters had a fine park and gar­den un­til the house was de­mol­ished in the 1960s.

It is now man­aged by the Vinters Park Wildlife Trust and a few rem­nants of the de­signed land­scape are still just dis­cernible un­der a cov­er­ing of scrub and un­der­growth.


The com­mis­sion from Earl Cam­den in 1806 to im­prove his es­tate at Bayham Abbey in­volved de­sign­ing a new house. The site in­cluded the ro­man­tic ru­ins of the me­dieval abbey in a broad val­ley above the River Teise.

Rep­ton pro­posed form­ing a lake from the river and sug­gest­ing that it was larger than it ac­tu­ally was by the care­ful po­si­tion­ing of trees. He iden­ti­fied a site for the new house on the north bank with pic­turesque views of the ru­ined abbey across the wa­ter.

The lake was cre­ated by 1814 but the new house would not be built un­til 1870. The spot then cho­sen was close to that rec­om­mended by Rep­ton.

The abbey ru­ins are now cared for by English Her­itage and are open to the pub­lic, but the house and grounds are in pri­vate own­er­ship. Jane Austen’s cousin Fran­cis Austen com­mis­sioned Rep­ton to ad­vise on the park and gar­dens of Kip­ping­ton House near Sevenoaks and a short re­port on his pro­pos­als sur­vives, dated 28 July 1808.

It in­cludes sug­ges­tions for a new car­riage­way to the house, which seems to have been acted upon, en­hanc­ing views of the church from the grounds, im­prov­ing the en­trances to al­low trav­ellers on the main road to see a de­light­ful glade within the es­tate, adding a por­tico and plant­ing roses around the house.

Af­ter the ar­rival of the rail­way in 1865 and the ex­pan­sion of Sevenoaks, the es­tate was sold for hous­ing. Kip­ping­ton House sur­vives and has been con­verted into flats.


The last of Rep­ton’s key com­mis­sions in Kent was in

1812 for Lord Amherst for his es­tate, Mon­treal in Sevenoaks. Lord Amherst had been re­spon­si­ble for the cap­ture of Mon­treal in Canada from the French in 1760.

Rep­ton rec­om­mended im­prov­ing the views from the house of the plea­sure grounds, lake and the obelisk erected by the first Lord Amherst to com­mem­o­rate the Bri­tish vic­to­ries in the Seven Years

War. A ter­race and a broad level gravel walk into the gar­den was also pro­posed.

The Amher­sts were abroad un­til 1828 and on their re­turn they com­menced work on the house and gar­den. A re­mark­able col­lec­tion of fam­ily let­ters and di­aries have sur­vived, record­ing the progress of the work and the close in­ter­est mem­bers of the fam­ily took in it.

Rep­ton’s pro­pos­als were not car­ried out ex­actly, but un­doubt­edly in­flu­enced the de­vel­op­ment of the grounds.

The es­tate was sold for hous­ing in the 1930s and the house was then de­mol­ished.

Photo:© Med­way Archives Cen­tre Photo: © pri­vate col­lec­tion Photo: © Yale Cen­ter for Bri­tish Art

ABOVE: Cob­ham Hall, Hasted, 1778 LEFT: Cob­ham Hall af­ter Rep­ton, taken from the North Plea­sure Ground RIGHT: Vint­ners from Rep­ton’s Red Book

Photo: © The Trustees of the 5th Mar­quis Cam­den Will Trust

Rep­ton’s vi­sion of the com­pleted Bayham Abbey

Photo: © Li­brary and Archives Canada

Rep­ton’s pro­posal for the plea­sure gar­dens at Mon­treal and the cre­ation of a basse cour to the south. Note di­rec­tion of the north.

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