2018 has been a pretty extraordinary year for Humphry. He has surprised many – if not most of us – by his skill and understanding not just of landscapes and gardens but also by his ability to sell his ideas to clients. Thanks to the amazing amount of research that has gone on in County Gardens Trusts all round the country during the year I’ve gone – like most of us I suspect – from considerable ignorance of his work to a real appreciation of his significance. You can read more about these latest discoveries in the range of new publications our local researchers have produced and which listed on our website.
But all good things come to an end and although I’ve got about another dozen posts on Repton in various stages of completion I think this will be the last for a while to give us all a chance to recover and mitigate the risk of being Humphed out.
This final post seems particularly appropriate because although it’s about a great piece of design, even theatre, it reminds us that despite his own very high opinion of his ability Humphry didn’t always get his own way.
The quotes in this post are from Repton’s Memoirs edited by by Anne Gore and George Carter and published in 2005, and the images from the copy of Designs for the Pavillon at Brighton (published 1808) owned by Royal Pavilion & Museums, Brighton & Hove
Repton himself writes the story of this failed project in rather bitter tones in his memoir. “There were always two objects in my professional career on which I have indulged the most ardent hope; the one that I might be consulted by my Sovereign and the other that I might succeed as an architect as well as a landscape gardener.”
Of course it was his sons, John Adey and George Stanley, who went into architecture but “with their assistance I felt myself competent to undertake plans of any magnitude. We had made plans for many magnificent buildings which had been greatly applauded … but few had been executed. Now in the moment when I least expected it my hopes were actually about to be realised.”
Repton thought his dreams were about to come true because in October 1805 he “received a notice from the Duke of Bedford that the Prince of Wales meant to consult me at Brighton where I might go ‘as soon as I conveniently could’. ” Repton had commitments for the next 3 weeks with other clients and “having always been in the habit of paying the same degree of attention to all persons who did me the honour to consult me” carried on with them “not being aware that the etiquette when serving Royalty admitted of no excuse or delay whatsoever.”
When travelling around the country Repton had his post forwarded, and now en route he received a letter from the Prince’s secretary saying that work had already begun “on the alteration of the grounds near the Pavilion” and that “his Royal Highness, in consideration of the subject, thought it too trifling to trouble you upon.”
Poor Repton. His social climbing, which had been about to reach its zenith, was being dashed away. He was mortified. “I read the letter again and felt I was in disgrace.” He immediately wrote and apologized feeling “extreme regret that the Prince should think any subject too trifling”. He tried subtly shifting blame to the Duke of Bedford who had told him that “the Prince wished my opinion for the operation of next year and did not command my immediate attention.” Of course, he added, I also “deferred seeing the spot till all the leaves being off the trees I might not form an erroneous opinion of what they now concealed.”
Then Repton reveals what he had been planning to suggest: “The high honour of being in any degree useful to his Royal Highness was so flattering that I have lately been turning my attention to representation of Indian scenery, and had hoped to have produced some effects particularly connected with that style in the gardens at Brighton.”
There was no response for more than a week and Repton returned to his humbler clients but when he reached Stratton Park in Hampshire, the home of Sir Francis Baring the banker he found a summons dated 17th November 1805 to attend the Prince “as soon as you can conveniently come.”
Repton did not waste a second but “turned my horses’ heads around and set off immediately.” The Prince then kept him waiting for several days before apologizing “with that peculiar grace which no-one can conceive who has not seen it” and said “I am sorry to have kept you waiting Mr Repton but I wished to be perfectly at liberty to talk with you.”
A walk round the grounds followed “and for nearly an hour he talked as if he had never thought on any other subject than gardens, parks and landscapes, but with such justice in his remarks as I have seldom heard from any admirer of Nature.”
Repton having heard that the Prince was an admirer of the taste of Walsh Porter, of Craven Cottage in Fulham had gone especially to see it himself. Some things there he felt “were done out of the common way with good effect, others so whimsical and absurd that I dreaded the sort of taste I might have to encounter at Brighton.” But luckily George appeared to share his opinions of Porter’s taste and so “I begged him to explain his own ideas on the gardens at the Pavillion”. He “deferred” to me “to give my opinion unbiased by anything you may have heard to be mine, or by any reviling taste or fashion.”
I am grateful to Nicholas Kingsbury for the following correction: “The drawing which you reproduce above as of ‘Craven Cottage, Fulham’ actually depicts another cottage orné at Fulham (Ivy Cottage), which confusingly was also owned at one time by Walsh Porter. The identity of the house shown here can be demonstrated by comparison with a very similar view which was published as an engraving in 1817. A drawing of the real Craven Cottage – which was a significantly larger and grander house – surfaced at auction last year, and I intend to publish it in due course.”
Because of the several days he had been kept waiting Repton had already had plenty of opportunity to think through possibilities and so he was able to explain his proposals with fluency. They went down well and the following day he began marking out the ground and producing diagrams all of which George understood. “Indeed I have never before met with a person so quick in conceiving all I proposed.” Smarmy? Oleaginous? Repton? surely not! “Let it not be thought that in thus writing I use the language of adulation that is common when speaking of Princes, for it is in truth from my heart that there is a fascination about the Prince of Wales that inspired me with a mixture of love and respect such as I have seldom felt.”
Repton was back in Brighton on 12th Dec with his sons to assist in the completion of the drawings on the spot, and the following day he met George again, introduced his family and showed him “the drawings representing the gardens in their present and improved state, by my usual method of slides. They were praised and admired beyond my most sanguine hopes…and beautifully realized all he had imagined from our conversations.”
I suspect to his surprise Repton was then asked to give his opinion “about the style of an entirely new house which might best assimilate the large dome of the stables already built and an audience was appointed the following day.” As you might imagine his “mind was overflowing with excitement and joy, for had [he] not obtained the highest point of [his] ambition….appointed to direct the taste of the country in its architecture as well as its scenery.”
While he was thus enraptured a messenger arrived from the Prince telling him to show the drawings to Mrs Fitzherbert. Of course he rushed to do so almost immediately and found the Prince there as well. Mrs F was “reclining on a sofa surrounded by cushions and footstools…the favourite friend (and wife as she thought herself) of the future King of England.” Mrs F was not that interested. It soon transpired the maps and drawings “were totally incomprehensible to eyes that shone to be admired rather than admire anything… and the only remark she made …was ‘and pray what is this to cost?’ ”
No matter. The audience ended with Repton asked to prepare a book of designs for “not a mere marino… but such a residence as I may hereafter live in.”
The book was done and taken by Repton to Carlton House, the Prince’s London residence, where “it was examined and as much extolled by all present as it had been at Brighton.”
“It was great gratification when the Prince said ‘Mr Repton, I consider the whole of this book to be perfect. I will have every part of it carried into immediate execution. Not a tittle shall be altered , even you yourself shall not attempt any improvement.’ ”
“We then talked of the means … a subject I suspect others had avoided” and when Repton asked “to whom he must apply for instructions during the execution of the work he said ‘To me only Mr Repton’ and he then desired me to meet him at Brighton during the ensuing Race Week.”
From then on it was downhill all the way.
Repton turned up at Brighton but when he left his name at the Pavilion was fobbed off with excuses, and he only saw the Prince once from afar and received a swift bow. He mooched about for a few days until he received a summons to the Pavilion where he found a huge crowd and so had no chance of a proper private conversation. “It became my duty to wait his Royal pleasure.” Thereafter Repton saw George “every day in public” but he was “always engaged by surrounding multitudes” until eventually just before a royal road trip to Yorkshire there was a brief encounter in which the prince told Repton that he would “expect to see the cellars and all the foundations finished by the time he returned” and he was “urged to lose no time.” Repton had already arranged the workmen he was to employ, and so now he handed over the first tranche of estimates he had prepared expecting a confirmation of the order and some cash, but was told by the Prince before “he hurried away” that “XX [Repton is being cautious in not naming the inetrmediary who was probably Henry Holland the architect ]would immediately answer”.
Repton must have begun to smell the proverbial rat because: “I resolved to begin no actual work till I had received an answer from the gentleman I had been directed to address.” When the answer finally came it was negative in the extreme. ” The Prince of Wales” he was told “is well aware of the impracticality of answering yr large demand… I have it not in my power of paying the account for the moving of earth under your orders, neither can I say when there is prospect of advance from HRH’s Treasurer. The heavy debt in arrears must be settled prior to further payments. I very much lament so much of your time has been occupied in forming plans for so small a plot.”
“So ended my Royal hopes… from this time forth I heard no more of Brighton.”
However to his surprise “in the year following, the Prince came to a review near Romford, and take leave of the Regiment going to Spain. [Remember this is all happening in the middle of the Napoleonic Wars] All the neighbourhood were invited to a grand breakfast under canvas, and I sat so nearly opposite his Royal Highness that he addressed me across the table: ‘Ah Mr Repton, I am glad to see you. How are your engagements for the next week… come and see me at Carlton House between 12 and 1 on Monday.”
Humphry was kept waiting by the prince until Tuesday but then “we walked into the garden and I was required to give my advice as to its improvement. After which he left me without one word being mentioned about Brighton. I very soon delivered my report…and great satisfaction was expressed at what I proposed to do.”
Imagine his shock then, when “I was afterwards refused admittance to the garden becasue the Ministers had consented that James Wyatt should do everything there as Surveyor of the Board of Works, and thus all expense to the Prince’s Privy purse was to be transferred to that of the Public, and of course I was superseded without the least ceremony or consideration.” Repton tried to conceal his disappointment writing that “I could only try and comfort myself with the reflection that the Nation was saved from the expense that would have been incurred had my plan been executed.” So you can imagine how he must have felt when told that “twice as much as my estimate had been lavished at Carlton House under the direction of Mr Walsh Porter.”
Repton was also upset that his former friend and business partner John Nash “in whom I had been so painfully deceived” had been appointed by the Prince to places the most honourable and lucrative and in the highest personal favour for suggesting plans of such enormous expense that they can hardly ever be realised .” But he adds “it is not envy at his success but the recollection of my own vain hope that have like brilliant bubbles burst and vanished in thin air. It has taught me to know the full wisdom of the advice contained in the 8th and 9th verses of the 118th Psalm”: It is better to trust in the Lord than put confidence in man. It is better to trust in the Lord than to put confidence in princes.”
This story comes in the few last pages, indeed paragraphs of Repton’s Memoirs. He heard no more of Brighton for 10 years “but being there one day at the end of that period I called at the Pavillion , and was refused admittance!” Nevertheless, as you have seen he had the plans published perhaps in the hope of recouping some of his costs, and they show his ideas for a magnificent fantasy series of buildings and surrounding gardens.
For the full story of Repton and the Pavilion see the article by Judy Tarling in Humphry Repton in Sussex published last month by Sussex Gardens Trust – and a fascinating read it is too!
The last paragraph of Humphry’s Memoir contains a typically modest summary of his life and career: “as a landscape gardener I have never been succeeded by a more successful rival. My own profession was like myself becoming extinct. My ship of life is sinking and it is time to quit it; these pages will serve to show how actively I have performed the voyage.”