Repton and his business

HAPPY NEW YEAR!  If you hadn’t already realised 2018 is Repton Year, when we’re commemorating the life and work of the last great landscape designer of the eighteenth century.  Unlike the Festival for his ‘predecessor’ Capability Brown there is no great central nationally funded organization. Instead Celebrating Humphry Repton  will be a collaborative effort, which, even though although it can’t match the funding of CB300,  looks certain to match the enthusiasm and spread of interest nationally.  County Gardens Trusts and other groups will be arranging events around the country throughout the year to celebrate Repton’s work. You can find a list – continually being updated – at this dedicated webpage on  The Gardens Trust website.  If you would like to get involved or receive updates email The more people who join in, the better the celebration!

And of course the blog is going to play its small part.  Repton has already been the subject of two posts  way back in April 2104  [ A general one about his life and another on his work at Ashridge] but during the course of this year I’m going to look at aspects of Repton’s approach to garden and landscape design, in what I hope is a less conventional way so that I [and you the reader] don’t get Humphed-out by the end of the year and wish that he’d never been born!


But where to start?

The more I read the more complicated Repton becomes, until  I asked myself what’s the one thing that everyone knows about Repton? He made Red Books.  But the how and why he did isn’t quite so obvious.  It isn’t even clear why he became a landscape gardener in the first place.  So lets start there….

Humphry Repton c1790 Miniature  by John Downman (1750-1824) Bridgeman Library

Humphry Repton had had a series of other occupations. He’d been in trade, taking over his father’s textile business; he’d tried writing;  he’d tried getting involved in the transport/post business; he’d thought about becoming an artist; he’d been private secretary to his patron William Wyndham in Ireland; he’d tried being a country gentleman renting a small estate at Sustead in Norfolk,   and trying his hand at agricultural improvement, but most of these enterprises had ended in failure.

View of Sustead Grazing Lands, Repton, 1779, Norwich Castle Museum

In the end,  fear of poverty drove him to leave East Anglia and he moved his family to London in 1786. Even then he didn’t go into his new occupation immediately. Instead he tried being a critic before finally taking the plunge at the age of 36 to become a landscape gardener. 

Norwich Market Place, Thomas Rowlandson, 1788

But don’t imagine that Repton was some sort of country bumpkin. Norfolk wasn’t in any sense a sleepy backwater, but one of the leading centres for agricultural reform and experiment. Nor was Norwich just a pretty cathedral city off the beaten track- rather it was one of the largest and most wealthy  provincial centres  in the country, with a diverse cultural and social life.  

Nevertheless to be branching out at the age of 36 was pretty late in the day. Compared with Capability Brown Repton was about 20 years behind, and had no practical training in horticulture or as far as I can see in any sort of garden related business, but he did know something about estate management.  Apart from his own farming experience he had friends who were agricultural writers/improvers including Nathaniel Kent, author of  Hints to Gentlemen of Landed Property (1775) who believed that  “knowledge of agriculture is the most useful science a gentleman can obtain; it is the noblest amusement the mind can employ itself in. “

Felbrigg, the seat of William Windham, Repton, 1779

Willaim Windham MP,                                    Secretary for War 1794-1801

Other neighbours in Norfolk were also important. Humphry had seen how the Felbrigg estate was run by his patron, William Windham  and this  gave him  ideas  about how to  exploit otherwise underused parkland  to the best economic advantage. Another near neighbour, William Marshall, author of  Planting and Ornamental Gardening (1785) was also keen to promote the idea of an estate being run both as business but also with aesthetics in mind, as became “a man of taste”.    

When Repton began writing his Red Books his analysis  of the site often include advice on the economic benefits of  the improvements he was suggesting.  This was a late Georgian version of Stephen Switzer and another reflection of Horace’s adage  – dulce et utile –  beautiful and useful.

Humphry had other skills and knowledge – and connections – too.  He had contributed to  Armstrong’s History of Norfolk [1781] including  making topographical sketches which were turned in 27 plates.  He worked with John Boydell, one of the most important London publishers. He was also friends with James Edward Smith, founder of the Linnean Society,  and later Sir Joseph Banks.  

detail from the Red Book on Welbeck Abbey

So the fact that Repton was not a practical hand-on gardener didn’t matter much.  He was aiming to be a very different sort of  practitioner: one who saw the theoretical side  of design and layout as much  as the practical aspects of  construction, planting and  maintenance. He was not a professional horticulturist  but a professional improver. This  was not a trade you could  be apprenticed into but instead one to be studied  alongside the other gentlemanly pursuits of ‘polite society’ and as part of the pursuit of ‘good taste’.   But the bottom line is  that Humphry  probably went into it  simply because he no longer had enough money to live his  comfortable gentlemanly lifestyle, and this was the nearest to a gentlemanly profession that he could turn his hand to at this stage in  his life.

Repton and Earl Cowper at Panshanger from the Red Book

The die was cast when Repton sent round a circular letter to his friends and acquaintances on 26 August 1788.   In Repton says: “I have been advised to render my leisure profitable by a profession…  Mason, Gilpin, Whately and Gerardin have of late been my breviary – and the works of Kent, Brown and Richmond have been the places of  my worship.”

Musician Charles Burney was one of the recipients and his reply survives: “I have had pleasure, nay gratified vanity in showing it to the elect  who have places to improve and taste sufficient to see the superiority of your conception in this little sketch.”

Repton’s Trade Card, 1788/1789

That same month, Repton  ordered 500 of his now famous business cards for  a guinea, and the following April ordered 500 more.   But where did Humphry learn to usea theodolite take a survey like this?

from Observations on the Theory and Practice of Landscape gardening, 1805

The short answer is we don’t know. What we do know is that in that same month, August 1788, he began to buy technical equipment. Over the next year or so he had bought a theodolite and a level for £10, parallel rulers, a scale, a protractor, and a Gunter’s  chain. By the following autumn he has added a telescope for two guineas, more rulers, and a T-square.

Portait traditionally identified as Humphry’s son, John Adey Repton, Follower of Joseph Wright of Derby, Christies

“The free use of my pencil, and the rapid facility of sketching landscapes, was already familiar to me. But I had to acquire much practical knowledge of engineering, which was not to be obtained without some expense. From personal intercourse with the men of celebrity; I learned much. But the Civil Engineers of those days were chiefly engaged in cutting canals, constructing sluices etc, it was not difficult to understand all they had to teach.”

from Repton’s Red Book for Catton, 1788

detail from Repton’s Red Book for catton, 1788

So it looks as if we have Repton learning his technical know-how almost on-the-job.  On his first commission, which was for Jeremiah Ives  at Catton just outside Norwich, we discover quite how inexperienced he was at this stage. After walking  the estate with his client on the first day, on the second they bring in a professional surveyor. But Humphry must have been a quick learner because a month or so later he is back “by myself marking and staking out the work,”  Later he makes alterations to the map drawn up by the other surveyor.

from the Red Book for Endsleigh, 1814

After Catton there doesn’t seem to be any other indications of Repton  employing an outsider to do the surveying, until right at the end of his life when he was in a wheelchair and working at Endsleigh.  One of the reasons for this may be that he didn’t need to: often using  existing estate plans as the basis for his own. This of course marks one of the great differences between him and Capability Brown:  Brown was a technical master, relying on cartography to show his clients what was proposed whereas Repton, as can be seen from the Red Books, preferred discussion, written description, and above all his sketches, believing that a picture is worth more than 1000 words.

from the Red Book for Rug in Merionethshire, 1795

Somehow one feels that, unlike Brown,  Repton didn’t really enjoy (or perhaps understand fully) the engineering side of landscape design.  He rarely did any land transformation or earthmoving if it could be avoided, although there are exceptions, notably at Welbeck  and Bulstrode for the Duke of Portland,    This reluctance may also have been aesthetic. When working with John Nash  he asked that  the ground simply be reshaped “to produce by art a situation which nature denied” for the house. Of course it’s also true that perhaps the clients didn’t always like it. Lord Thurlow, for example, apparently shouted at him:  “Do you think God Almighty does not know what is the best shape for the ground to be?”

detail of Making a New Fish Pond from the Red Book for Sarsden, 1796

Nor did Repton undertake the oversight of the physical  landscaping work himself,  preferring the client to organise all this themselves. Very unlike Brown. On  the rare occasions that Repton did take on contracting it seem to have been problematic (for more on this see George Carter, Humphry Repton, 1982)

from Observations on the Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening, 1805

What did all this cost?  It’s difficult to know exactly.  Repton  was  unlike any of his predecessors. Brown had contract fees. Architects Repton worked with such as  John Nash,  charged  a fixed percentage plus two guineas a day in expenses and  more if the designs were carried out.  When working with his own son, John Adey Repton, he charged  a standard 5%.  But it’s difficult to  be treated like an architect without also acting as contractor.

Luckily there is one surviving account ledger which shows that at the start of his career in 1789 he was charging  just three guineas a day plus expenses, or five guineas including them. But from 1790 onwards he seems to have charged five guineas a day as a basic fee, as  famously reported by Jane Austen in Mansfield Park.

detail of Red Book for Wanstead, 1813

Some clients, especially the longer term aristocratic ones like the Duke of Portland, the Duke of Bedford, and  the Marquess of Bath, paid him 100 guineas a year  as a global sum, even though Repton thought he would be “for the first year or two … to be a loser by this agreement.”


Repton at Stoneleigh Abbey, from the Red Book, 1809

detail from The Fence near the House, in Fragments on the Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening, 1816

Unfortunately external circumstances,  particularly the war with France which broke out again in 1793 and continued for the rest of his working life, effectively, undermined his client base. The war led to  inflation,  a decline in the amount of work, and to income tax.  In 1805 just after it was introduced Repton’s £400 annual income was taxed at 5% costing him £20, but the following year his £800 was  taxed  at 10%, or £80, causing him to write “now must I abide with this … or we must kick the commissioners or bid them kiss my A***”

from Fragments on the Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening, 1816

All his business was run from an office in Hare Street, Romford,  near his house where he employed, as far as is known only one employee outside his family.  Much of the work he did himself, even when famous. His wife wrote to their son in 1810 “my dear H has been at home at this last fortnight very hard at work drawing and making books and we are kept in constant employee of reading to him.”

And  its these books that we will look at in the next Repton-related post in a few weeks time!

from Fragments on the Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening, 1816



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3 Responses to Repton and his business

  1. Fiona says:

    What an extraordinary life, so many careers before finding his true vocation Hope for us all!

  2. Reblogged this on The Garden Gate is Open and commented:
    It is the bicentenary of the death of Humphry Repton, he of the Red Book fame. There are many events organised and gardens gates opening throughout the year. This piece was so interesting that I am reblogging.

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