Repton’s Red Book Regret
In eighteenth century garden design, Humphry Repton is seen as the successor to ‘Capability’ Brown and one of the greats of his time. He designed over 400 English landscapes and gardens, many of which survive today, most of which were accompanied by one of his famous Red Books. During 2018, The Garden’s Trust worked together with other organisations, including the National Trust, to celebrate the work of this great visionary in the bi-centenary of his death in 1818.
Repton was born in 1752 in Bury St Edmonds, Suffolk into a family of merchants. After an unsuccessful textile business and several other failed career attempts, he set himself up as a ‘landscape gardener’ and in 1788 got his first paid commission at Catton Park.
To help illustrate his designs to his clients, he produced Red Books of beautifully rendered watercolour illustrations and explanatory text showing before and after pictures of his proposed changes.
Repton at Sheffield Park
Early in his career, Repton was a defender of Capability Brown’s designs, which were sometimes criticised for their lack of formal gardens, however, as his career progressed, Repton began to re-introduce flower gardens and formal terraces close to the house which then became common practice in the nineteenth century. During the eighteenth century, Sheffield Park was owned by John Baker Holroyd, the first Lord Sheffield. In 1776 he had commissioned ‘Capability’ Brown to make changes to the grounds and parkland surrounding the house. This resulted in the development of Upper and Lower Woman’s Way Ponds through the bottom of the valley, and the development of pleasure walks in the woodland.
In 1789-90, Lord Sheffield then bought in Repton to advise on the lakes nearer to the house, although a Red Book was never produced at the time.
The missing letter and sketches
Sheffield Park appears to be unique amongst Repton’s work as the one country estate he worked on for which he did not produce a Red Book.
In a letter to Lord Sheffield in 1801, Repton laments:
“When I reflect that Sheffield Place is among the few on which I have not delivered my sentiments in writing – I regret that I had not adopted that mode of perpetuating my opinions at the period when your Lordship first did me the honor to require my attendance…If, as I sometimes hope, there should ever be a general collection made of my scattered M.S.S. that work would be incomplete unless the name of Sheffield Place appeared among those on which I had been consulted…”
He goes on to describe in detail his proposals for changes to the garden, parkland and lakes and mentions sketches and drawings that he has produced. However, the only known copy of this letter is a 1930s typed transcript held by Harvard University which does not include any drawings or sketches.
With Lord Sheffield’s documents and papers being much dissipated since his grandson’s death in 1909, the location of the original letter remains a mystery.
We know that Repton was still corresponding with Lord Sheffield in 1805 regarding the work he was engaged with at Brighton Pavilion. Could it be possible that Repton did indeed produced a Red Book for Lord Sheffield after the 1801 letter? The missing letter and sketches could help us to deduce how much of Repton’s advice Lord Sheffield acted upon.