His early life
He was born at Bury St Edmunds in Suffolk and his family moved to Norwich around 1762. He was then sent to the Netherlands to study Dutch. On his return to Norwich in 1768 Repton was apprenticed into the textile business but largely failed in his attempt at a mercantile career. After 1776, when both his parents had died, he moved to Old Hall, Sustead on William Windham’s Felbrigg estate. At Sustead he had a small farm and spent much of his time reading, writing and sketching. Around 1786 he moved to Hare Street, Essex where he first attempted a career as a playwright before deciding in 1788 to employ his artistic talents to become a ‘landscape gardener’.
A career as a landscape gardener
His first commissions were in Norfolk, at Catton, for the mayor of Norwich and textile merchant Jeremiah Ives, and at Holkham, the estate of Thomas Coke. Later clients included the third Duke of Portland and the Duke of Bedford. Repton quickly developed his trademark Red Book (named after the colour of the morocco leather binding) in which he presented his designs to clients. The books comprised passages of text detailing his proposed ‘improvements’ illustrated with watercolour sketches. He added flaps to some of the watercolours to allow him to depict ‘present’ and ‘proposed’ views within the same picture. The Red Books varied in size and scope with the largest and the most impressive being reserved for his most esteemed clients. Repton produced at least 123 of his Red Books between 1788 and his death in 1818.
Abbot Upcher commissioned Repton to produce the Red Book for Sheringham in 1812. It is considered one of the most comprehensive, a mark of the affinity he felt with Abbot Upcher. The Red Book is owned by National Trust but kept at the Royal Institution of British Architects (RIBA) library at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. In 2013-14 it was selected to be part of the exhibition ‘Masterpieces: Art and East Anglia’ at the Sainsbury Centre of Visual Art.