Repton in a flap! Red Books and theatricality…

What’s the one thing that everyone knows about Humphry Repton apart from the fact that he spelt Humphry without an E? I’d guess it’s the fact that he produced Red Books, so called because of their red morocco leather bindings. [That’s despite the fact that half of them aren’t red but brown, and there were apparently even one or two with green card covers.]

These Red Books contained a lengthy handwritten analysis and description of the site, together with his proposed  improvements, beautifully  illustrated with his own watercolour sketches  and were, apart from a  few given as gifts in the early days, sold to his potential clients.

Of course the key element of the Red Book’s design was the flap, or, as Repton called it, the slide.  It was an uncomplicated visual trick employed to show “before” and “after” in a quick and non-technical way, but despite its simplicity it has more than a degree of showmanship.  I’d originally hoped to get this post finished before the end of the pantomime season because this week’s post is going to consider Repton, his Red Book technique and  his theatricality.   I suspect that might cause a few raised eyebrows.  After all what’s Repton got to do with the stage or showbiz? I think the answer is quite a lot, although perhaps it’s not always obvious.

Self-portrait of Humphry Repton surveying the estate of Welbeck Abbey, from Sketches and Hints on Landscape Gardening 1795

The plan for Ferney Hall, Shropshire, Morgan Library

Preparing a Red Book was a complex process, and it made a highly unusual but expensive sales technique which didn’t even always succeed in gaining the commission. However it’s  ensured that Repton’s name has entered the hall of fame. If he had merely drawn up a rough plan for a site the likelihood this would now be long-lost or stashed away in the bottom drawer in an archive somewhere, whereas even for those sites where his suggestions were not implemented the Red Book was, and still is, referred to and admired in its own right.

Repton at Stoneleigh Abbey, from the Red Book, 1809

It was in some ways akin to commissioning a family portrait to hang over the fireplace, or a glossy nursery catalogue which also contains useful gardening advice as well as a price list of plants and so is kept for reference purposes.  But perhaps the best analogy is with   a nicely produced and informative theatre or opera programme it found its way into the client’s library to be shown and shared with friends, even if they had not seen the performance.

The Title Page of the Red Book for Ferney Hall, Shropshire, Morgan Library

Not all Repton’s consultations resulted in a Red Book, some merely ended up with shorter write-ups but in total Repton claimed to have written over 400 reports during his career. Stephen Daniels and John Phibbs in their gazetteer published in Humphry Repton: Landscape Gardening and the Geography of Georgian England [1999] could only find 339, so although more sites have been identified since then it suggests there are still many more to be discovered by research being co-ordinated by the Gardens Trust.

The present view from the Red Book for Endsleigh, 1814 [copied into Fragments on the Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening, 1816]

Repton began by painting the view of a site as he envisaged it after his proposed improvements, then, on a separate sheet, painted its present state, cutting this second painting into a shape just big enough to hide the improvements when overlaid on the first.  The second sheet was then glued to the side of the painting and folded carefully to form a moveable flap. When flat, it blended in with the rest of the background in the first painting, but when  lifted the benefits of Repton’s suggestions became abundantly clear. Sometimes if the “improvements” suggested were substantial there might even be two flaps to lift, one on either side of the painting.

The ‘After’ view  from the Red Book for Endsleigh, 1814 [copied into Fragments on the Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening, 1816]

To us the idea of an overlay like this seems fairly obvious but it caused a stir amongst his contemporaries, much as computer-generated imagery must have done for modern generations.  The transformation of a dull ‘today’  to a potentially exciting ‘tomorrow’ simply by lifting a paper flap was seen not just as a good sales technique but on a par with the lifting of a curtain on stage to reveal a new scene.

John Rich as Harlequin

Indeed  Repton’s old friend William Marshall wrote that his Red Books turned “rural improvement” into “rural pantomime”.  We might take that as a bit of an insult: after all pantomime is comic, a childish and rather silly sort of Christmas show. However it didn’t have the same connotations in the 18thc, and was a much more adult form of entertainment.

Pantomime developed from Commedia dell’arte a kind of itinerant street theatre  originating in Italy in the 16thc. It was popularized in Britain in the early 18thc by an actor/impresario named John  Rich who introduced it to the London stage, and made the figure of Harlequin the star of the show.  Harlequin was a light-hearted, imaginative, well-informed but artful servant,  who often suggested, influenced or sometimes  thwarted the plans of his master.  Does he perhaps share any of these characteristics with a well-known landscape gardener? Far be it for me to suggest it!

Harlequin also carried a wooden sword or stick that acted as a magic wand, which at the right moment  he would  slap it against the stageset to make the scenes change. [Incidentally it’s where the term slapstick originated].  But what’s this got to do with Repton?

London had a virtual monopoly of theatre until the mid-18thc, but during Repton’s lifetime its reach and influence spread widely, with theatres  being built in towns and cities all across Britain.  Coming from a  reasonably comfortably-off merchant family in Norwich, one of the country’s biggest provincial towns, he grew up in a world where theatre was becoming an established part of everyday life.  The White Swan Inn in the city changed its name to the White Swan Playhouse in 1731,  the New Theatre opened in 1757 and the Theatre Royal [still going strong today] in 1768. Humphry’s family would almost certainly also have subscribed to newspapers which routinely carried  reports of the London stage productions.

Title page of Odd Whims, vol.2 which contains the play

Later in life Repton was a lover of all forms of theatrical entertainment from opera and Shakespeare to travelling players and puppet shows.  Nothing unusual in that – one has only to think of the amateur dramatics in Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park to know  how popular they were becoming with “polite society”.  But it was a closer involvement  than that. Not only was Humphry a would-be thespian he was also a published playwright, poet & essayist.

The Bee anonymous but by Repton

In 1783, 5 years before he switched career, he tried his hand at being a dramatist, albeit with only one play to his name.  The Odd Whims or Two at a Time was performed by a touring company at various theatres and  less formal locations like barns all around Norfolk. It was according to Repton “read with pleasure by Mr [Edmund] Burke and commended by Sir Joshua Reynolds”. Check out contemporary reviews and then the script yourself to see why no group of  Repton fans are putting it on this year!  It was revived, however, when he moved to Romford. He wrote several poetic pieces which were publicly performed and even tried his hand at being both a theatre and art critic.

Repton was also a regular concert goer and went to lectures at the Royal Academy, and he loved dressing up. There is a lengthy account in his memoirs of him attending a masquerade with 2 of his sons – one dressed as a Greek slave, the other as “a man from the moon who carried his head under his arm while his body was clothed all over with representation of silver fish scales.” Repton himself “hired the dress of a Dutch Burgomeister” and put a windmill on his hat. In case you’re wondering why  – its because he’s spent time in Holland as an adolescent  learning Dutch and the textile trade, because his father thought it would help his future career in the family business.  For more on this see the Historical Gardens blog of Henk van der Eijk.

Harlequinade at Covent Garden Theatre, about 1770. V&A

The Woodland Scene, c1818                     , Georgian Theatre Royal Richmond.

So the simple fact is Repton was steeped in theatre and would have understood precisely what William Marshal meant. But  he would also have known that pantomime and theatre were changing fast, thanks largely to the innovations in theatrical style being developed in London by David Garrick and his stage/set/lighting designer, the painter Philip de Loutherbourg [of whom more in another post one day].  Just as Garrick was making the acting style more human and natural, so De Loutherberg was introducing realism to the stage settings.

Playbill  for Theatre Royal, Drury Lane on 27 Jan 1779. Museum of London

Until then there was little in the way of scenery, merely a backdrop and panels in the wings.  In 1778 the Theatre Royal, London staged a pantomime production of The Wonders of Derbyshire, or Harlequin on the Peak. De Loutherbourg visited Derbyshire – then of course famously fashionable as a tourist destination –  to sketch the actual locations to be used in 16 separate stagesets.

One of the model sets for The Wonders of Derbyshire, V&A


He also added free-standing set pieces and props such as boulders and trees.  By making everything more realistic it helped transform the relationship between the actors and the audience.

“The Downfall of Shakespeare Represented on a Modern Stage”
William Dawes, 1765, V&A

Understanding as he did the conventions of theatre, Repton knew the power of raising a  curtain or changing the scenery.   Indeed he wrote in his notes to the published version of his play :  “It is therefore the scenery and decorations which must amuse the greater part of the audience”.  That’s exactly what he did with the Red Books. His flap  technique  is simple enough to our eye but was clearly novel to his contemporaries. Red Books were  designed to be seen by clients in their own homes, and perhaps then displayed in their libraries to be shown to guests and visitors  so no grand gestures were needed because the  small-scale movement of the flaps was intimately theatrical enough.

From Johann Remmelin’s Catoptrum microcosmicum, 1619. Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library, University of Toronto.

But where did Humphry get the basic idea of overlays from?

Flaps used to represent 3-dimensional shapes, Euclid’s The Elements of Geometrie  Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library, University of Toronto.

Firstly books with flaps were not new, and had been used since the 16thc to conceal text or illustrations,  although almost entirely in mathematical or medical text books.  Of course we have no idea if Repton would ever have seen an example of either. He certainly had access to the library at Felbrigg the home of his patron, the  Tory politician, William Windham, who might have owned  such things, but I’d hazard a guess that that was unlikely.

From  Remmelin’s Catoptrum microcosmicum,  1619. Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library, University of Toronto, 

Harlequin Cherokee [ check it out!]

However, it’s much more likely he would have seen some of the children’s books produced by Robert Sayer, a London publisher.  These were small  “turn-up books” in  four sections that had two flaps each which folded upward to reveal pictures underneath. Sayer called these books “Metamorphoses,” because of the change produced by the lifting of the flaps.

Interestingly Sayer also produced another series of small cheap books – Harlequinades -which featured none other than  Harlequin and also used ‘turn-up’ flaps to uncover the next part of the story.

A Harlequinade, by Robert Sayer, Bodleian Library





Such books were designed with what would now be called the interactive readers in mind. To read the complete story the reader has to participate. If they don’t the rest of the narrative stays hidden. For added encouragement these books often included instructions in the text to  “Turn it up and you may view…” or “Turn down, you’ll find the ready way,” but in every case, as far as I can see,  lifting the flap merely continued a fixed storyline and allowed for no other options.

Repton goes one stage further. He doesn’t just offer clients a single painting to demonstrate  his suggestions, or even two paintings of the present and the future.  Instead of  a fixed ending he used flaps to  transform a scene or show possibilities.

Transformation is the key word here because the character of Harlequin was becoming ubiquitous  both in children’s books and on stage. Soon the pantomime transformation scene evolves,  and something dull and boring like Cinderella’s kitchen with its pumpkins and mice is magically metamorphosed into a glass coach with white horses, and all achieved with a little stage magic and Harlequin’s slapstick.

Humphry as Harlequin [thanks to Nicholas Marsh for the technical assistance!]

Repton himself summed the whole process all up…in his book of essays Variety he wrote about how “the happiness of life consists rather in expectation than enjoyment”   and   isn’t that what lifting the flap is all about?  Taking something simple, adding some variety and novelty where it wasn’t expected “particularly if the example” is  “addressed to those, who may never before have seen the object placed in a light adapted to their pursuits.”

I’m obviously not the first person to notice Repton’s theatrical connections – although I’m probably the first to suggest Humphry was a sort of landscape Harlequin! I hope you don’t think the idea too outrageous.  More on Repton and his transformation of our understanding of the landscape soon.

Repton’s trade card on the inside cover of the Red Book for Ferney Hall Mellon Collection

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