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
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.
MAN ON A MISSION Humphry Repton frequently reinvented himself