What were Humphry Repton’s Red Books?

A detail of Humphry Repton's Red Book for Sheringham Park, 1812

The famous ‘Red Books’ were produced by the landscape designer Humphry Repton (1752 - 1818) to present to his clients to showcase his design proposals. They were small, filled with handwritten text and watercolour paintings, and bound with the red Morocco leather that gives them their name.

A new type of practice

In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries the Red Books were an innovation, especially the use of ‘before and after’ views. They became a key part of Repton’s design practice, and were very different to the plans and maps that had been produced by landscape designers in the past.

Repton produced over 100 Red Books during the course of his career, for most of his major commissions. He was a skilled water-colourist and each book contains a number of his delicate paintings and usually include a map of the estate, showing his proposed changes.

The big reveal

Some of the watercolour paintings were designed as ‘before and after’ views – Repton carefully pasted in a flap with the ‘before’ view which could be lifted up to reveal the view ‘after’ his improvements had been carried out.

The maps and illustrations were accompanied by detailed text which described the various changes that Repton suggested.

The legacy of Repton and his Red Books

Repton’s practice as a landscape designer differed from many of his predecessors, like Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown, in that Repton only produced the designs – he did not take responsibility for creating them on the ground. This work was left to the client, and in some cases his designs were never carried out, or were only partially implemented.

Today the idea of presenting a portfolio of designs to a client is a typical one, and modern garden designers and landscape architects often use before and after views – we have Repton to thank for introducing this practice nearly two hundred years ago.

Red Books in our care

We look after several Red Books, including those for Attingham Park (1798), Sheringham Park (1812), and Wimpole Estate (1801).

A watercolour by Humphry Repton from the Sheringham Red Book

Sheringham Park 

Sheringham was one of Repton’s final commissions, and one of his favourites. It is still possible to stand on the site of some of Repton’s viewpoints from the Red Book and compare the ‘before and after’ views to see the effect of his designs.

Watercolour design for two lodges on east drive by Repton at Attingham

Attingham Park 

The Red Book for Attingham Park was created in 1798 and the vistas that Repton created within the park and suggested in the Red Book can still be traced on the ground today.

Watercolour view from the North Front of Wimpole Hall by Humphry Repton, 1801

Wimpole Hall 

The Red Book for Wimpole Hall (1801) shows the ways in which Repton improved and updated a park designed by Lancelot ‘Capabilty’ Brown.

A view across Sheringham Park, Norfolk

Our Humphry Repton landscapes 

This year marks the 200th anniversary of the death of Humphry Repton, the original landscape gardener who transformed the gardens and parks at more than 20 of our places. Discover how he shaped many of the places we care for.

Humphry Repton's Red Book of Attingham contained his design proposals for the landscape

Explore our collections 

Our collections include the Red Books for Tatton Park, Attingham, Wimpole and Sheringham Park, a large number of other sketches and architectural drawings by Repton and his son John Adey, and copies of some of his publications. These documents are important for the study of garden history and act as valuable sources of information for the restoration and management of our places.