I looked a few weeks ago at the techniques that Repton used in his Red Books, particularly his trademark flap or overlay to show his proposed improvements. This week I want to turn to another aspect of the Red Books and his printed works which rarely attracts much comment… and that is only marginally to do with flaps and slides. It’s the way that Repton uses the double-page spread to show the full extent of a landscape. Is that significant? Why did he do it?
Of course there had been unusual shaped pictures before, including extra-wide ones, but most books and paintings, even landscapes, usually conformed to a fairly standard set of proportions based on the golden mean and used fold-out sheets on the rare occasions that a large image was thought necessary.
One of the things about this sort of wide image is that it’s impossible to take it in one glance, at least in the original rather than this mini-reproduction. Humans don’t have fly-like or bird-like all-round vision. There are limits to our field of sight and so widening a landscape view means that the observer needs to move their eyes across it, or even turn their head, to see the full extent and the details.
In this way, the observer’s eye travelling across the representation of landscape mimics in a small way the body or feet actually crossing it and picks up I think on a another defining feature of the mid/late 18thc – a heightened sense of mobility. This gave far more of a feeling of change, alteration, movement in a much wider sense, than earlier understandings and representations of the world and its landscapes ever did. That’s hardly surprising – the pace of life was speeding up. The world was being criss-crossed with ships regularly going to our far flung colonies, and voyages of exploration or even circumnavigation were no longer rare and isolated events.
Nor was this ability to travel confined to a few adventurous sailors and merchants, or a few of the wealthiest scions of the aristocracy undertaking the Grand Tour. Great swathes of the population travelled and they did so faster than ever before. Travel times from London to provincial towns was cut by 2/3 in the second half of the 18thc. In 1700 it took about 50 hours on the road to reach Bristol or Bath, by 1800 that could be done in 12-16 hours. And to Norwich, where Humphry grew up, journey times were cut from 50 to 19 hours. The timings may still seem absurdly slow to us – unless you’ve caught on Southern Trains recently – but they were swifter than in any previous age, and this speed and mobility was an integral part of the identity of not just the elite but the smaller scale gentry, administrators, industrialists and businessmen who made up a big proportion of Repton’s clients.
Repton himself comments on it in the introduction to his comedy “Odd Whims”, published in 1804, although written and performed some 20 years earlier: “within so short a period as the last 30 or 40 years it required three days to travel 100 miles, and therefore few people would travel so far. The journey to London presents now no terrors to the country squire…”
Cartoonists, however, still managed to take advantage of that fear!
Moreover it seems that Repton was really a transport enthusiast. He often described his routes in letters to clients and calculated in his memoirs that he rarely did less than 4000 miles year. He owned a copy of Cary’s Traveller’s Companion which showed all the turnpike roads in great detail.
More importantly in terms of estate layout and garden design he recognized the importance of mobility in relation to the country estate or suburban villa, and rather than trying to hide away approach roads and driveways he made them prominent and sometimes even central to his suggested improvements.
This is partly on practical grounds. In Sketches and Hints he asks : “How far gravel roads are admissible across the lawns of a park”. His answers are clear: “surely very little doubt will remain on this subject when we consider a park is a place of residence and see the great inconvenience to which grass roads are continually liable.” It might be different in open countryside or forest “but in a park, a road of convenience, and of breadth proportional to its intention, as an approach to the house for visitors will often be a circumstance of great beauty; and is a characteristic ornament of art, allowable in the finest inhabited scenes of nature.” Indeed he goes on “perhaps there is no object more useful… than a good coloured gravel road, gracefully winding, and of course describing those gentle swells of the ground, which are hardly perceptible from the uniform colour of grassland.”
So, at West Wycombe, for example, he proposed “a new road of approach, with carriages occasionally passing near the banks of the lake, (which) will give animation to the view from the saloon.”
At Sheringham, his own favourite set of proposals, he went even further. His painting of the scheme for improvement put the brand new road centre stage, with the carriage clearly visible and heading, with its passengers, towards the house.
To our eyes the bare earth banks on either side look raw and unfinished, despite the fact that we know they will presumably soon be clothed with vegetation, but Repton seems not to consider this unfinished state to be of any importance.
Indeed in another version of the approach to Sheringham its depiction in such an unfinished state, together with the workmen still labouring on its completion, should be seen as a sign of the immediacy and modernity of the scene. It’s also worth noting the way that the sea isn’t just a pretty backdrop but is littered with shipping, just as the field is littered with sheep.
This focus is part of his longer term vision of “enlivening the scene”, because “a scene, however beautiful in itself, will soon lose its interest unless it is enlivened by moving objects” particularly animals : “a large lawn without cattle, is one of the melancholy appendages of solitary grandeur observable in the pleasure grounds of the past century.” Equally “a large lake without boats is a dreary waste of water.”
All this shows Repton is running with the flow of the those in the sublime movement who want to include movement/ transport/ industrial life in the landscape as matter of routine. In a way that’s not surprising since his own house at Hare Street, Romford was on a major road in and out of London. He was used to regular mail coaches running past, and indeed he had in one of his earlier business ventures tried to get involved in speeding up mail delivery.
In his book of essays Variety Humphry includes the story of a man laid up after a hunting accident and recounting one of his dreams. This dream revolves around movement through an idyllic landscape which obviously serves as a metaphor for his life.
“I conceived myself transported to a delightful country, beautifully variegated with gentle hills and vales, with woods and plains, and cultivated fields, which were for ever changing as I passed on; for TIME, who was my conductor, never would give me leave to stop a minute in a place.”
The narrator goes on: “that the delight of every scene consisted chiefly in its novelty.” Novelty is of course another one of those key words about the late 18thc and a reflection the concerns of the age. One only has to think of Stourhead, where visitors were offered a tour which took them through constantly changing Claude-like compositions, or William Gilpin’s tours in which sightseers observed the passing landscape as a changing series of picturesque views.
BUT other ways of representing change and movement in the landscape were more complex…in every sense. Art Historian Rod Bantjes suggests that the “prevailing certainty” of how the world was represented gave way in the later 18thc “to doubts, not only about how we ‘see’ space, but also about how artists might incorporate tactile sensations of ocular and bodily motion as well as time and memory in their depictions of the spatial world“. That’s a long-winded technical way of asking how do you capture this movement /variety/ fluidity in more static form? [“Hybrid Projection, Machinic Exhibition and the Eighteenth‐Century Critique of Vision” in Art History, June 2014]
One simple way is via the Claude glass [which I wrote about recently] This is simplistically just a small darkened convex mirror in a travelling case which was widely used by both professional and amateur artists as well as aesthetically minded travellers, to effectively reduce the complexity of the landscape and even its size reducing it to a more manageable painterly image and to render it picturesque.
But its not just painted or drawn images that captured the weather or the world in motion. Even the seemingly fixed form of a map could show things in flux. The map is an extract from Horwood’s 1812 map of London which for the first time, as far as I am aware in a published map, shows a city in transition. The large white space shows the Lower Moorfields, part of London’s first park, cleared of its trees and walks to make way for housing around Finsbury Circus. On the south side you can also see the part of Bethlem Hospital – midway through demolition.
This on the other hand shows what is to come: the construction of Vauxhall Bridge, with the outline of the road crossing the market gardens on the edge of Neat Houses, and joining the road network by the famous Vauxhall Gardens.
SO… whats all this got to do with Repton’s use of the double page spread? At first sight probably not a great deal, but flicking through Stephen Daniel’s biography of Repton, its easy to spot the different effects created by “standard” sized paintings and to sense the difference with those which show a wider representations or which cover a double-page spread. The eye has to move. It cannot take all the detail in one glance, and that does affect the way the brain senses the scale of the site.
By Repton’s day theorists and scientists were beginning to understand this, and work out why the human eye can really only discern a very narrow angle of view projected on the most sensitive area of the retina. Repton himself was aware of it when laying out the broader landscape, and included occasional references and explanatory diagrams in Red Books and his published works.
Previously many artists had employed a framework grid , or used a camera obscura, to create “realistic” perspective, even though this led to images which could not have been seen by the human eye in one glance, but with this enhanced understanding of optics things began to change. Bantjes [see above] uses urban architectural examples to discuss [at great length] “hybrid projection” -effectively where perspective was [as with the Claude Glass] deliberately distorted by lenses to compress a wide image to fit a small frame, or to stretch it to fill a larger one.
There is no evidence at all that Repton ever used any form of enhancement for his sketches – indeed he seems proud of his natural drawing skills – but he certainly understood contemporary optics and print making and would surely have known of the techniques employed. He would also have known that artists were also turning to more mechanical ways of creating images using ‘optical machines’, such as zograscopes and peepshows, which were the precursors to later apparatuses such as the panorama, the stereoscope and Carmontelle’s transparent landscape rolls which I discussed recently. AND all these pre-cinematic devices these were often connected with another of Repton’s great loves: the theatre in all of its manifestations. More on all that shortly…