Repton produced designed for the grounds of many of England’s foremost country houses. He was most prolific in Essex, where he lived for 10 years during his classic period, and Norfolk, which he viewed as his home county.
Here at Saling Grove he designed the garden and the park. To honour his life we will be celebrating with our own talks, a study day with the Essex Gardens Trust and our Repton Sundays, weekly exhibitions about the man and his work to be held at The Orangery.
The creator of 'landscape gardening'
Repton was born in Bury St. Edmunds, Suffolk, the son of John Repton, a successful collector of excise, and Martha. He was educated at Norwich Grammar School, where his father ran a transport business.
In 1764 he was sent out to the Netherlands to train as a merchant. Commerce proved to be a career to which he was ill-suited and he failed in several business ventures. He was, however, inspired by the small but beautiful gardens he had witnessed alongside the Dutch canals.
Combining his love of sketching with his talent for writing, his professional interest in the design of gardens blossomed, and he turned his passions towards this new endeavour.
Encouraged by a friend in Norfolk, William Windham of Felbrigg Hall, who gave him access to botany books from his library, and with his capital dwindling, in 1788 Repton moved his young family to Hare Street, near Romford in Essex.
The previous leader in landscape design, Lancelot 'Capability' Brown, had died five years earlier, leaving a gap in the market Repton was eager to fill.
He sent circulars to land owners in Essex and Norfolk, coined the phase 'landscape gardening' and thus tentatively commenced his new career.
In 1790 he designed Rivenhall Place, Rivenhall and in the following year the gardens and park here at Saling Grove, for John and Elizabth Yeldham.
A commission from Cornelius Kortright for Hylands near Chelmsford followed the year after.
These three works were created during his most popular ‘classical’ period.’ He then went to Norfolk and received landscape commissions for Catton Park and Holkham. But arguably, the most successful of his projects was Sheringham Hall some years later.
Repton's Red Books
Repton was known principally for his ‘Red Books’ – hinged pages that could be lifted to show views before and after his altered suggestions, together with a folio of plans, drawings and accompanying explanatory text for individual clients.
The Essex Record Office has the Red Books for Claybury Hall, Stansted Hall and Theydon Mount.
His approach to landscape gardening contrasted sharply with that of Capability Brown, who invariably worked on a wider canvas to create huge new landscapes. Repton, by contrast, more often than not tried to enhance and modify the existing landscape in harmony with nature.
He cut vistas through to ‘borrowed’ features beyond, such as church towers or distant plantations, making them seem part of the designed landscape. He altered approach drives and estate cottages to give a greater impression of size and importance.
Whereas Capability Brown acted as both designer and contractor, Repton acted as a consultant. He charged clients for the Red Books and sometimes staked out the ground, but ultimately left his client to arrange the actual execution of his designs. As a consequence, not all of his designs were followed and executed.
Enhancing nature without imposition
Repton’s restrained but practical style put him right into the ‘Picturesque' controversy debate which dominated polite society and the art world.
Leading art critics, such as Richard Payne Knight, argued that landscape re-modelling should reflect the contemporary approaches to landscape painting that showed more rugged and intricate landscapes together with classical motifs and references.
Repton, with his restrained and practical designs, disliked the attempts to impose the classical Italian style on the English climate and landscape. He preferred to enhance nature.
He was important for later influencing ‘Gardenesque designs’. His design elements included the laying out of gravel walks and lawns to be used for cricket, croquet and bowls. He popularised the use of terraces and reintroduced separate flower gardens and flower beds.
He also replaced earlier classical ornamentation with romantic structures, like grottoes and fake ruins.
Existing buildings played a central role in many of his later schemes. He worked with the architect, John Nash, whose early building style suited Repton’s landscape style. Indeed, Repton’s influence of colour and style can be seen in Nash’s Brighton Pavillion.
A legacy matured over centuries
Repton finally retired in 1814, three years after a carriage accident forced him to use a wheelchair. In his retirement he produced a book ‘Fragments on the Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening’ (1816) with his son John Adey Repton. In it he discussed the relationship between the landscape and the main estate house. He also detailed his approach and theory to landscape gardening: it is ..’the united powers of the landscape painter and the practical gardener.’
His legacy to the English landscape can now be viewed with the maturity of centuries in a handful of parks and gardens that still exist. These, together with his famous Red Books and his other books (Sketches and Hints on Landscape Gardening (1795) and Observations on the Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening (1803)) remind us why he is the last great landscape designer.