Humphry Repton and Hatfield Forest

Chris Connell, Volunteer Chris Connell Volunteer
A portrait of Humphry Repton, commissioned for his

Humphry Repton was one of England's greatest landscape gardeners, regarded by many as the successor to Lancelot Capability Brown. He was born in 1752, in Norfolk, and died in 1818, having lived for many years in Hare Street, on the outskirts of Romford. In 2018, we celebrate the 200th anniversary of his death on 24 March 1818.

The successor to Capability Brown

After a chequered early career in business in Norwich, Repton moved in 1786 to Hare Street, Essex and undertook his first commission as a "landscape gardener", indeed he invented the phrase.  Lancelot Brown had died in 1783, so their careers did not overlap.

Whilst Brown provided designs and then generally managed their implementation, Repton limited himself to designs.  He was an accomplished water colour artist and his hallmark was the so-called "Red Books".  He would provide the client with watercolour views of the landscape as they were, and then, with overlaid flaps, as they would be, according to his designs, plus a written commentary, bound in red leather.

Did Repton visit Hatfield Forest?

Not only was he a local lad, living not far away at Hare Street, near Romford, but we know that he worked locally, having prepared a "Red Book" for William Heath, at Stansted Hall, Stansted Mountfitchet in 1791 (see Essex Records Office D/DQ 29/1).  

Humphry Repton also prepared a series of drawings of country houses and estates.  These were converted into vignettes which were used to illustrate "The Polite Repository", a yearly almanac published by William Peacock.  This was a pocket-book sized publication which appeared over a number of years, with each month illustrated by a different vignette.  The entry for May 1803 had a view of Hallingbury Place, the seat of Jacob Houblon IV (measuring about 60 by 30 mm - small but beautifully formed!). 

Vignette of Hallingbury Place taken from 1803 edition of The Polite Repository
Vignette from an almanac of 1803 showing Hallingbury Place
Vignette of Hallingbury Place taken from 1803 edition of The Polite Repository

Repton must therefore have visited nearby Hallingbury Place some time before 1803.  It is likely that Jacob Houblon would have shown him around his extended grounds, including his detached pleasure ground at Hatfield Forest.

Did Repton work at Hatfield Forest?

It has been suggested that Repton would produce these vignettes, in the hope of encouraging a commission from the owner.  Unfortunately, we have no evidence to suggest that Repton did any work for Houblon, either at Hatfield Forest or Hallingbury Place.

Jacob Houblon had previously commissioned plans for improving Hallingbury Place from Lancelot Capability Brown, in the early 1770's .  There is no evidence that these were implemeted in the period immediately afterwards.  A new lake, to the north of the house, was eventually built, as shown in an illustration of 1832.  It was not however shown in the Ordnance Survey map of 1805.  

Local sites

Repton provided Red Books for Wimpole Hall and Felbrigg.  Sheringham Park, on the Norfolk coast, was one of his last major commissions.

He also prepared a Red Book for Earl Cowper for Panshanger Park, on the outskirts of Hertford, and for modifications at Audley End, as well as plans for Wanstead Park, at the southern end of Epping Forest.