Repton’s Red Book Regret

Sketch of Sheffield Park, East Sussex in late 1700s

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 is working together with other organisations, including National Trust, to celebrate the work of this great visionary in the bi-centenary of his death in 1818.

Humphry Repton

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.

Humphry Repton
A portrait of Humphry Repton
Humphry Repton

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. 

Lancelot 'Capability' Brown, Oil painting on canvas after Sir Nathaniel Dance-Holland
Capability Brown portrait
Lancelot 'Capability' Brown, Oil painting on canvas after Sir Nathaniel Dance-Holland

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.

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

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.

Repton’s views

During summer 2018, we will be marking points in the woodland to which Repton refers in his 1801 letter, helping visitors to uncover some eighteenth century features which have become disguised by the later changes to the landscape.  Look out for the ‘Celebrating Humphry Repton’ information panels as you explore Walk Wood.

Sculpture in Walk Wood
Sculpture in Walk Wood in East Sussex
Sculpture in Walk Wood