Humphry Repton: the first landscape gardener

A portrait of Humphry Repton

Delve into the life and work of Humphry Repton; the original landscape gardener who sculpted the parks and gardens at more than 20 of our places.

Humphry Repton was born in 1752. After failing to make a success in the commercial world, he decided to bring together his skills as a water colour painter and his personal experience of designing landscapes to set up as a landscape gardener. Being the first to use this term, Repton was both the best and the worst of landscape gardeners of the time.

Christopher Hussey, the former owner of Scotney House and gardens, which he later donated to the National Trust, once said Repton ‘thanked heaven that he was blessed with a poet’s feelings and a painter’s eye’.

By 1794, after successfully launching himself as a landscape gardener, Repton had been employed at 50 places, more than 20 of which now fall under our care.

The best of his characteristics were as artist, designer and natural successor to Lancelot 'Capability' Brown. Some of the worst were in his writing, which Hussey describes as ‘a devastating mixture of servile pomposity’.

A watercolour by Humphry Repton from the Sheringham Red Book illustrating his design
A watercolour by Humphry Repton from the Sheringham Red Book
A watercolour by Humphry Repton from the Sheringham Red Book illustrating his design

The Red Books

Unlike Brown, Repton discarded the contractors’ trade of creating parks and gardens. Instead, he limited his practice to ideas, design and depiction in elegant watercolour. These three skills were brought together in what he called his Red Books; one for each commission.

In these Morocco-bound volumes, he devised ingenious watercolours depicting the garden and park as it was. Then, by turning back a flap on each, the picture transformed into his proposed improvements.

There are 20 or more gardens and parks cared for by the National Trust that show Repton’s hand; ranging from Antony, Ashridge and Attingham, through to West Wycombe, Wimpole and Woodchester.

Rhododendrons on the main drive at Sheringham Park
A view of rhododendrons on the main drive at Sheringham Park
Rhododendrons on the main drive at Sheringham Park

Aspects of genius

Sheringham in Norfolk was often described by Repton as his favourite and darling child. Here, he designed a landscape that had views of the sea, but sheltered the house from seaborne storms. It allowed for contact with the poor, yet preserved the privacy of the house, and agriculture was enabled, while allowing nature to live easily alongside art.

At Ashridge, Repton led the way to the Victorian ideal of a flowery terrace that wrapped around the house and the scenic park kept for the medium and long view. With the use of the ha-ha to separate the cattle from the gardens, the Ashridge Red Book describes how one may be delighted ‘to see two bulls fighting without the possibility of danger’.

Breaking down barriers

Repton died in 1818 at his home at Hare Street, having produced over 100 Red Books amongst his many commissions. In addition to his painted works, he wrote extensively about uniting the clean and polished landscapes of Capability Brown and his followers, with the more natural and dramatic landscapes of the picturesque movement, led by Payne Knight and Uvedale Price. Most importantly, he broke down the barriers between the garden and the park, so that both were recognised as essential parts of the place while still working in harmony with each other.