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Humphrey Repton filled the boots of Capability Brown

Posted in British Countryside, Country House, Famous landmarks, Historical articles, History, Nature, Plants on Friday, 20 January 2012

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This edited article about gardening originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 611 published on 29 September 1973.

Humphrey Repton's accident, picture, image, illustration

Humphrey Repton was paralysed after a coach accident, by C L Doughty

Humphrey Repton was twelve years old, homesick and very miserable indeed. To be packed off from home to a boarding school was bad enough, but when the school was in a foreign land it was doubly difficult. It had all seemed a great adventure at first; packing the huge trunks at Norwich, the coach journey south and then taking the packet boat over to Holland. Now at school he had to endure strange companions who laughed at him but could not understand him, and he wished heartily that he was home once more. Humphrey curled up in a huge window seat and continued to look out into the drab, grey landscape that he was beginning to know so well and which now seemed almost like a prison.

A few minutes later, he was startled to see a smart private coach draw up in the school courtyard. The paintwork gleamed and the coachmen were resplendent in matching livery. Humphrey was so interested in speculating who its famous owner might be, that he did not hear the approach of the headmaster’s wife. Mrs. Zimmerman laughed to see him start in surprise as she spoke his name, adding cheerfully, “It is a visitor for you, Master Humphrey. A Mr. Zachary Hope.”

Zachary Hope lived in Rotterdam, one of a rich and powerful family of Scottish bankers. He had been asked by the Reptons to keep an eye on Humphrey, and when he saw how miserable the boy was, he invited him to live with his own family, sharing the children’s tutor. It was a turning point in Humphrey’s life and suddenly everything was transformed.

From the dull, drab school where he was to have been trained as a merchant, he moved to a magnificent home with marble walls, mosaic floors and oriental decorations of every kind.

It was a gay and cultured house where trade, finance and politics mingled as topics of conversation with the theatre and the arts. Humphrey enjoyed it all with the zest he always displayed. He learned to sing and play the flute, to draw and paint exceptionally well and to get a taste for literature and the theatre.

Yet Humphrey’s delights were the despair of his father. Mr. Repton was a well-to-do Customs official who saw a prosperous future for his son, if only he could learn how commerce was conducted. It was for this reason that Humphrey had been sent to the school in Holland, one of the great trading nations. But when, at the age of 16, Humphrey was placed in a large textile house to learn the trade, it was obvious that his thoughts were elsewhere.

Even in the warehouse, his love of singing and drawing kept distracting him from the tasks of making cloth and money in which he was supposed to be engaged.

Eventually, he admitted failure and his parents provided the money to set him up as a general merchant. But this, too, was hardly a success and, although he struggled on for five years he knew, from the financial losses, that he could not go on for much longer. Next he tried becoming a civil servant, then investing in the new scheme of Royal Mail coaches. He wrote a play, tried his hand at becoming an art critic and was prepared to do anything to add to his income. But nothing seemed to work.

At the age of 35, when most men were assured of their future careers, Humphrey Repton had tried half a dozen and failed at them all.

It was a bitter thought, even to such a good humoured character as he, and one winter night it was enough to stop him from sleeping. Lying awake, he began to think furiously until at last the idea that he had been waiting for came, almost like a miracle. He would attempt landscape gardening. He could draw and paint, had an eye for beauty, had friends among the landed gentry, and had designed gardens for himself which had already brought forth many admiring comments. Minutes later, he had lit a candle and was striding back and forth across the bedroom in his nightshirt, busily planning strategy, his head awhirl with ideas.

It was an unusual beginning, but in those midnight hours he had instinctively hit on exactly the right use for his talents. His knowledge of trees and plants and his genius for visualising complete landscapes made him into the foremost landscape gardener of his day. His life’s work attracted followers, and the way he managed to blend formal and informal gardens into a natural landscape remains the hallmark of his own contribution.

At that time there had been two great English landscape gardeners, William Kent and Capability Brown. They had grown dissatisfied with the excessively formal gardens that were fashionable in Europe. The mathematical precision of trees, plants and hedges and the geometric patterns they formed seemed stilted and ludicrous. Instead, they made gardens which reflected nature, using the natural beauty of the countryside and creating contrasts of light and shade by making forests and lakes.

It was an age when men with vast estates and fortunes could really shape the countryside around them, and now it was Humphrey Repton whose genius was to show them how. When Humphrey made his great decision, Capability Brown had been dead for five years and no one of equal talent had risen to take his place.

More than anyone, Brown had showed what could be achieved. He had got his nickname from his habit of looking at the ground intended for transformation into a garden and murmuring, “Yes, I see great capability of improvement here.” His magnificent schemes were (and still are) a delight to the eye, although some of his patrons were financially ruined by their vast size. Humphrey Repton had no other alternative than to follow Capability Brown’s footsteps, but he finished as the other’s equal as the evidence still around us today proves.

Humphrey began his new work without delay, writing to friends and acquaintances for support Soon his optimism, good humour and obvious talents were enough to get him started, and so he began the characteristic way of working which made his methods famous.

First, he needed to make a survey of the grounds he had to transform. For two or three days, he would walk over every acre, theodolite in one hand, notebook and pencil in the other. The results of his deliberations and the owner’s wishes would arrive two or three months later in a slim volume handsomely bound in red leather. These famous “red books” would contain all the owner needed to know. Included were a description of the work, detailed suggestions and above all, pictures of Repton’s proposals. He was very fond of “before” and “after” landscapes in which he could show just how dramatic the improvement could be. Soon his reputation and commissions grew enormously.

Not all of his schemes survive but at Uppark in Sussex, Corsham Court in Wiltshire, Cobham Hall in Kent and Torpoint in Cornwall, and in many other country houses all over England, his work can still be appreciated. Sometimes the scale of his effort was enormous. At Corsham Court, where he worked with the great John Nash, Repton not only designed the grounds but made huge structural alterations that extended to the creation of a lake and a dam and new plantations requiring over seven thousand trees.

At Cobham he surrounded the house by plantations, shrubberies and gardens, then added fountains, statues, terraces and a menagerie garden. Here, too, he showed how effective a gradual move from formal to completely informal gardens could be.

Several London squares demonstrated his art in a city setting.

By 1811, Humphrey Repton was rich, successful and completely happy in his new-found profession. In less than twenty-five years, he had designed and completed schemes which had added enormously to the beauty of the land, and his name had become a household word.

Then, on 29th November, 1811, a tragedy occurred. Repton had escorted his daughters to a ball some six miles from the family home. After an enjoyable evening, they left very late for the return journey. The road was treacherous with frozen and impacted snow, and perhaps the coachman had his mind too firmly set on the warmth of the fire and his bed at home. Suddenly, the coach skidded out of control and overturned. Mary and Elizabeth Repton, though shaken, were unhurt, but their father injured his spine so badly that he was paralysed.

The rest of Humphrey Repton’s life – just seven years – was spent in a wheelchair. After a long and active career, he now had to watch others, but he did so with his usual good humour. Characteristically, too, one of his last orders was that his grave was to be planted with roses. It was an appropriate end to a life that had created so much beauty.

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