Britain was at war and in deep recession and Repton was still suffering ill effects from a serious carriage accident in 1811 which had left him largely confined to a wheelchair and increasingly dependent on his family. He was also under increasing financial strain as work had largely dried up during the prolonged war with France.
The threat of invasion by Napoleon was very real throughout the early years of the 19th-century and the North Sea was busy with activity. In Repton’s sketches we can see the signal station at the top of the hill behind the house and plenty of ships in the sea. 'The Mars', a warship of 74 guns, was anchored within sight of Cromer in 1807, where it was painted by John Sell Cotman before setting off to bombard Copenhagen. In 1810 the ship’s commander William Lukin, heir to the Felbrigg estate, signed a contract to buy the Sheringham estate but it was later cancelled.
Repton’s first connection with Sheringham was as a potential gift from the nation to the family of Horatio Nelson in commemoration of Nelson’s achievements (the estate to be named Trafalgar), a commission that might finally have brought him the fame and fortune he so desperately sought. However, the government were not to be convinced of its suitability and instead the estate was bought by Abbot and Charlotte Upcher, a young evangelical Christian couple. Repton’s son William, a solicitor, handled the sale and introduced his father to the Upchers, paving the way for the 1812 commission.
Repton knew Norfolk well, and appears to have become genuinely attached to the Upcher family, seeing the commission as an opportunity to create his idea of an ideal country estate at a time when he viewed most of the country as falling apart.
Prime Minister Spencer Perceval had been assassinated in May 1812 and George III had descended into madness, leaving rule to the Prince Regent who was extremely unpopular because of his extravagant spending at a time of war.
Repton had recently been forced to take on commissions for some of those who had profited from war contracts, processes of enclosure or financial speculation but privately lamented their lack of taste and concern for land and people. He also invested time and money he could ill afford making unrealized designs for the Prince’s Brighton Pavilion. Ironically, when writing Mansfield Park in 1812, Jane Austen used ‘Mr Repton’ as a byword for wanton alterations to the landscape.
Repton & the Upchers
In the Red Book for Sheringham Repton described his relationship with Abbot Upcher as a “congenial meeting of minds”. The Upchers were keen to provide a moral lead for the community and Repton’s plans for the estate echoed the couple’s own views.
Repton proposed that the new house be situated close to the village of Upper Sheringham, be of a relatively modest design, with rooms “not extravagant in size or quantity,” and that visitors be permitted to enter the estate to enjoy the views. He also recommended that the Upcher family admit the rural poor to gather dead wood within the estate boundaries. Involving themselves within the community was crucial for the Upchers at a time when social relations were divisive across much of the country owing to unemployment, economic depression and a run of poor harvests, symbolised by the Luddite protests in the manufacturing districts.
The 'Red Book'
Sport was another important way to maintain good relations and within the Red Book Repton describes how cricket and coursing matches on the beach could be used as means of “promoting a mutual intercourse betwixt the landlord, the tenant and the labourer.”
Repton recommended that Upcher carry out some further planting to add colour, depth and variety to the existing woodlands. Planting trees also held symbolic significance at a time of war when timber was needed for shipbuilding. The inclusion of a cornfield within the view from the house is similarly indicative of the wartime context and the need for parks to be places of production as well as pleasure.
Work to implement Repton’s design was begun in early 1813 with plantings and the first stones of the new house were laid in July, with Repton and his son John Adey present. Abbot was enthusiastic and experimental in his planting, being the first in the district to introduce the plane tree.
Progress in laying out the design remained good until early in 1817 when Abbot tragically fell victim to a ‘brain fever’. He never recovered and died in 1819, just a few months after Repton’s own death. Charlotte continued to manage the estate and was an active member of the local community, campaigning and donating for local causes like the town’s first lifeboats and on international issues including the abolition of slavery.