Repton is well-known as our first landscape gardener but he was much more than that. It’s often overlooked that he was an architect too, [although with less obvious success and renown] and much of his writing is concerned with the marriage between the two arts.
If you’ve read anything about Repton before now you’ll know although he was a good judge [and manipulator!] of clients, but underneath his willingness to compromise he had very fixed views about many aspects of design, and one of his particular obsessions was glass.
He hated it! Well, of course, that’s not literally true but he ceratinly had very decided views about windows, [and the views from them] and hated to see visible glass in many situations.
The quotes in this post come from Repton’s printed works, Sketches and Hints on Landscape Gardening  Observations on the Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening  and Fragments on the Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening . Since the extracts in any one section are often from more than one source it proved too difficult to reference them quote by quote as I would normally do. However by following the links and word-searching you should be able to find anything you want to investigate further. Links under the images should take you directly to their source. Accompanying the text are several contemporary plates of windows, their curtains and views taken from Rudolph Ackermann‘s Repository of the Arts.
In Observations Repton lists houses such as Bowood, Wimpole, Bulstrode, Dyrham, Attingham, Kenwood and Thoresby where “green-houses” had been added in the 18thc “to conceal offices behind them” or as additional wings of the house in the same architectural style. Of course he doesn’t mean “greenhouses” in our current understanding – but conservatories or orangeries because he goes on to say “these were all built-in a period when orange trees and myrtles, or a very few other green-house plants were introduced, and no light was required in the roof of such buildings. In many of them indeed the piers between each window are as large as the windows.”
However late 18thc plant hunting, particularly from the Cape by Francis Masson, introduced a completely new range of greenhouse plants and Repton quickly saw how things had to change. “The numerous tribes of geraniums, ericas and other exotic plants, requiring more light have caused a very material alteration in the construction of the green-house.” From Repton’s point of view this was unfortunate since it meant that the buildings to house them “resemble the shape of a nurseryman’s stove.” But they were one of “refinements of modern luxury” and “a fashion to which I have often had to comply.”
One of these cases was Dyrham Park in Gloucestershire where in 1800 Repton successfully replaced the existing orangery roof [designed by Talman in 1701] with a sloping glass one.
In Repton’s view while this was obviously a practical necessity it was an aesthetic disaster if the greenhouse was directly attached to the mansion because “such an appendage, however much it may add increase its interior comfort, will never add to the external ornament. Instead, this updated greenhouse should be placed in the flower garden where “great advantage maybe taken of treillage ornaments to admit light, whilst it disguises the ugly shape of a slanting roof of glass.”
Repton’s aesthetic sensibilities were offended since “it is difficult to make the glass roof of a conservatory architectural , whether Grecian or Gothic.” So I wonder what he would have made of this vast extravaganza…
…not only did he consider such buildings ugly but to make matters worse if they were directly joined to the house they caused problems with damp and smells because of the “large body of earth in the beds or pots” and this odour could often be more powerful than the fragrance of the plants. A small lobby or ante-room between the two buildings was the absolute minimum.
His advice was taken to heart by at least some architects, as can be seen in this contemporary print, but even better if possible would be to link the two buildings by means of “a continuous covered way”. Such an arrangement “produces a degree of comfort, delight and beauty, which in every garden ought, more or less, to be provided: since there are many days in the year when a walk covered over head and open to the sides to the shrubbery, maybe considered as one of the greatest improvements in modern gardens.” You will note that the sides are open – no glass allowed!
Of course there can be exceptions. Repton uses the example of a scheme he proposed at Plas Newydd, “where the house partakes of a Gothic character”. There he suggested adding a “green-house terminating a magnificent enfilade through a long line of principal apartments”. It was based on the model of an octagonal cathedral chapter house, with supporting cast-iron columns with glass panels between them. This concession was allowable because “the side window frames might be removed entirely in summer, making a beautiful pavilion at that season when the plants being removed, a green-house is generally a deserted and unsightly object.”
Another example of this technique is his “flower passage” or “Vinery”. This was a long conservatory-like walkway, enclosed completely in winter and heated via “a flued wall” on one of its long sides. As can be seen from the plan below this wall also hid service buildings as well as parts of the kitchen garden. The walkway was to have a glass roof while the other long side, facing out over an elaborate flower garden, was made up of glass panels which, again, were removable in the summer. However Repton did not want the roof to be seen and suggested it was “covered with a wide trellis to support vines and other climbing plants.”
He also foresaw one of the modern interior designers visual tricks by terminating the passage with a statue of Flora. So what you might think… but the statue was placed so as “to conceal the join in two large looking-glasses placed behind it. In this mirror are repeated all the objects in the passage; nor is the deception discovered, till on a nearer approach we find we can proceed no further in that direction.”
Repton seems to have stumbled over this ingenious device by accident. Elsewhere he reports that “having directed a conservatory to be built along a south wall at a house near Bristol, I was surprised to find that its whole length appeared from the end of the passage in a very different position to what I had proposed: but on examination I found that a large looking-glass, intended for the salon (which was not quite finished to receive it) had been been accidentally placed in the green-house, at angle of 45 degrees, showing the conservatory in this manner: and I have since made occasional use of mirrors so placed to introduce views of scenery which would not otherwise be visible from a particular point of view.”
In another example of this sort of arrangement Repton illustrates his essay “Concerning Contrasts” with “a gaudy sketch..taken at the moment when a dark and heavy summer shower was suddenly succeeded by a bright effulgence of light in a conservatory from which the roof had been removed.”
And if all that wasn’t enough Repton also had rather strange ideas about windows, the colouring of window frames and the way glass should be seen in windows. He begins by stating that landscapes are best viewed from the inside through frames and glazing bars painted in dark colours. Outside on cottages and small houses the frames and bars should be painted a decorative green but mansions should not rely on “so insignificant an expedient as colour” so on a gentleman’s house the outside of the sashes should be white” whatever they are made of because “modern sash frames are so light that unless we see the bars, the house appears at a distance unfinished and as having no windows.”
But he went further: “in palaces or houses of the highest description, the sash-frames should be gilt, as at Holkham, Wentworth etc. The effect of gold in such situations can hardly be imagined by those who have never observed it and even at Thoresby, where the house is of red brick the gilding of the sashes has wonderfully improved its appearance.” I must say that was an eye-opening comment that conjures up a vision of Georgian bling on a grand scale which I have never seen reference to anywhere else, and I can’t see any obvious examples in Repton’s own paintings, but I started searching and discovered that Holkham did indeed have gilded windows… [The Journal of Architecture 2012 – Issue 1: Critical perspectives on landscape] but I cant find any images that show this… so if you know of examples where great houses did actually have their window frames etc painted gold please let me know.
But why all fuss about glass in windows and the colour of frames? In Fragments Repton includes a whole chapter about windows. He claims that “there is no subject connected with landscape gardening of more importance, or less attended to, than the Window, through which the landscape is seen.”
He had already written in Observations that “the views from a window were of little consequence when glass was hardly transparent, and in many of the ancient castles the small lozenge panes were glazed with coloured glass or painted with armorial bearings, which admitted light without a prospect”. Since no view out was possible it often meant that the windows were “often so placed that it was impossible to make the rooms inside comfortable.”
That’s where his architectural tendencies came to the fore. He loved houses in “the early Gothic of Elizabeth” which had “something so venerable and picturesque” about them which he always “endeavoured to preserve ” provided it “could be adapted to modern uses.”
He cites the example of Barningham Hall in Norfolk which “although it appeared large did not contain one room that was comfortable or of a size adapted to modern living.” Asked to remodel it by the owner his major change was to alter the glazing in the windows removing the small panes and replacing with plate-glass with glazing bars, and lowering the window sills, often too high, in the original, “to admit the landscape.”
Yet of course, sometimes this lack of light was necessary to creating the right atmosphere. But only in certain areas. Houses, even new ones, in the Gothic style should have halls and passages “rather dimly lit by painted glass to impress a degree of gloom essential to grandeur and to render the entrance to the rooms more brilliant and cheerful.” This echoed what he found at Barningham where the hallway and main staircase had light ony from a single window on the stair landing. This overlooked an inner courtyard and so had no view.
Allowing light into rooms, and views out, needed to be thought about differently in town houses and country ones but as a general rule “When Italian or Grecian architecture became more general, a greater display of fascade was introduced than the body of the house required” , windows were generally larger and the quality of glass better so the ability to have interesting views out from the various parts of the house assumed much greater importance. However even in those situations stained glass could still be used to block unsightly views as he suggested at Sheringham where ” the view from this window in this recess will be so peculiar it may perhaps be advisable to exclude all views from the windows on the sides leaving only upper part for Transparent Blinds or stained glass.”
The lengths to which Repton suggested his clients went to avoid glass could be extreme, as my last example shows. He writes of “the modern improvement, borrowed from the French, folding Glass-doors opening into a garden; by which the effect in a room is like that of a tent or marquee, and in summer delightful.” Ah you might think he’s coming round to the idea of glass after all… but not really. The problem with French doors/windows is that they “are seldom so constructed as to exclude the cold winds in winter” so in order to deal with that problem he suggests that his clients “build up a brick wall breast high, which may be taken away during the summer months,” along with the glass. Can he really have been serious? Try finding a builder who would do that for you today – or one suspects – even then!
More on Repton and his idiosyncrasies soon…. but if you enjoyed reading this and aren’t Humphed-out then why not take a look at earlier Repton posts on here…