With a stroke of his brush, he trans­formed the view

De­vised as a clever mar­ket­ing tool, Humphry Rep­ton’s Red Books make for a great ex­hi­bi­tion, says Christo­pher Wood­ward

The Daily Telegraph - Saturday - - GARDENING -

On the ta­ble is a wa­ter­colour artist’s al­bum. The first page is in­scribed “Sun­dridge in Kent, a seat of Ed­ward Lind Esq”, and the next is signed Humphry Rep­ton, of Hare Street, Rom­ford, Es­sex, dated June 26 1793. Rep­ton had been con­sulted on the felling of trees but con­sid­ered it “a duty” to rec­om­mend a brand new house. And a new view. One wa­ter­colour page shows the ex­ist­ing view of a ten­ant’s mucky farm. But lift a flap and the farm van­ishes; horse pond be­comes ornamental lake, with is­land and tem­ple. And Mrs Lind’s para­sol propped on a bench.

The “Red Books” of Humphry Rep­ton are per­haps the most se­duc­tive client pre­sen­ta­tions ever made. To mark the bi­cen­te­nary of the land­scape gar­dener’s death, Prof Stephen Daniels has picked 25 to dis­play in an ex­hi­bi­tion at The Gar­den Mu­seum, open­ing on Wed­nes­day.

Rep­ton had what we now call a “port­fo­lio CV”. As a flute-play­ing dandy in Nor­wich, he lost the money that his par­ents in­vested for him in a tex­tile busi­ness; af­ter mail coaches, he tried his hand at art and jour­nal­ism. His father’s legacy funded a squire’s fam­ily life at Sustead Old Hall, Nor­folk, un­til, at the age of 36, in 1788, he stepped into the gap left by the death of Ca­pa­bil­ity Brown and de­clared him­self a “land­scape gar­dener”.

“Find­ing my­self gifted” to see the po­ten­tial in a land­scape, he wrote, “I only wanted the means of mak­ing my ideas equally vis­i­ble, or in­tel­li­gi­ble, to oth­ers.” First, he painted into the al­bum what the es­tate could be like (that pretty lake). But then he painted on a sep­a­rate sheet the scene now (that mucky farm­yard) and over­laid it through the de­vice of a cut-out flap.

The de­vice cou­pled his skill as an artist with his love of the theatre (yes, he’d been a play­wright too). David Robin­son, the his­to­rian of early theatre, won­dered if flaps that Rep­ton called “slides” were in­spired by pan­tomimes in which a har­lequin changed one scene into an­other – a ruin into a new house, say – by slid­ing a panel on grooves across a stage. It’s a “be­fore and af­ter” trick that is as close to TV makeovers as gar­den his­tory gets.

Last week­end, I stood at the win­dow of Mul­grave Cas­tle in North York­shire. The “be­fore” wa­ter­colour shows bare hills on the moor but in the “af­ter” wa­ter­colour the hill­tops are dressed by woods, the sharp-toothed sil­hou­ette of Whitby Abbey curves into view, and the ru­ined me­dieval cas­tle in the val­ley is piled up into a ro­man­tic sil­hou­ette.

The book ends with a vi­gnette of the North Sea at moon­light, a trib­ute to Lord Mul­grave, the Navy hero who had in­vited Rep­ton, and be­gins with a flat­ter­ing dec­la­ra­tion that his home has “the finest nat­u­ral sit­u­a­tion” of any house north of Corn­wall. A Red Book is a let­ter to a client, and in be­tween are asides on art and the state of the world.

How dif­fer­ent a site visit by Ca­pa­bil­ity Brown must have been: a brisk horse­back ride was fol­lowed by a sim­ple plan, and a price quo­ta­tion. If ac­cepted, Brown’s con­trac­tors ap­peared in the spring.

Rep­ton made his liv­ing from de­sign, not ex­e­cu­tion; the Mul­grave Red Book cost £21. And the idea of a tun­nel through a ridge to the ru­ined cas­tle was not im­ple­mented un­til 20 years later. At Sun­dridge it was, in fact, the next owner, Claude Scott, who picked up the Red Book and built the brand new house sug­gested by Rep­ton.

A Red Book can, there­fore, sug­gest a long-term fu­ture of an es­tate, like a mod­ern “con­ser­va­tion man­age­ment plan”. In the archives at Woburn Abbey, Bed­ford­shire, are let­ters from the 6th Duke of Bed­ford, ask­ing his stew­ard to hunt down the Red Book that he has mis­laid; to­day, the 15th Duchess of Bed­ford and her team have taken that same Red Book as their guide in restor­ing Woburn’s plea­sure gar­dens.

An­no­ta­tions on the Red Book for Gaynes Hall in Cam­bridgeshire (1798) take us up to 1859. But here there’s some­thing else: an­other hand has scrawled over Rep­ton’s text “stuff ” (that is, “non­sense”) and: “No firs of any kind with this soil”.

Rep­ton ex­posed him­self to crit­i­cism from ev­ery pass­ing guest. At Tat­ton Park, Cheshire, Richard Payne Knight, the landowner and am­a­teur land­scaper, came to stay and then printed an ex­tract from its Red Book in a satire of Rep­ton’s style. The dif­fer­ence of aes­thetic opin­ion seems mi­nor to­day, but you can feel Rep­ton’s up­set at a pri­vate pre­sen­ta­tion be­ing quoted for pub­lic mock­ery.

Why would a de­signer sur­ren­der his ideas to the whims of clients and his guests? Per­haps, as Prof Daniels sug­gests, Rep­ton saw these books as his true legacy rather than the land­scapes them­selves. He had seen de­signs mu­ti­lated by ig­no­rant con­trac­tors, or new heirs; pa­per was a more re­li­able pos­ter­ity than plant­ing. Brown, by con­trast, saw his work as his legacy. He spoke lit­tle, and wrote even less. A cham­ber­maid’s son, he died a multi-mil­lion­aire.

Rep­ton, by con­trast, was short of money, neu­rotic, and pre­oc­cu­pied by the mor­tal­ity of his ge­nius. He was un­re­li­able, once al­most los­ing a client be­cause he was dis­tracted by a trav­el­ling pup­pet show. He had an opin­ion on ev­ery­thing. But he would be my com­pan­ion for a car­riage jour­ney on a Ge­or­gian win­ter’s night.

And his ge­nius springs back to life at the lift of a flap.

Visit gar­den­mu­seum.org.uk

MAN ON A MIS­SION Humphry Rep­ton fre­quently rein­vented him­self

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