Humphry Repton at Uppark

A portrait of Humphry Repton

Discover the life and work of landscape designer Humphry Repton here at Uppark. With a special trail taking you through the gardens and house, Repton's very own Red Book is on display as well as stunning paper creations by Delicarta. We also have short talks every Friday afternoon from our volunteer Repton expert. The programme runs from 22 September - 30 October 2018.

Many have heard the name Lancelot 'Capability' Brown, once described as "England's greatest gardener," but less well known is that of Humphry Repton. Yet the two are often considered equals, and for Uppark there was to be a particularly strong connection. Who was Humphry Repton?

Born in 1752, the son of a Norwich tax collector, Repton spent some of his formative years in grand surroundings in the Netherlands before returning to England and an apprenticeship as a textile merchant. However, this seemed to hold little interest for him, and when his parents died in 1778 he used his modest legacy to acquire a small country estate in Sustead, Norfolk. From here, he tried his hand as a journalist, a dramatist, an artist and a political agent among other things, but failed business ventures meant he was soon short of funds.

At the age of 36, with four children and little income to speak of, he hit upon the idea of combining his artistic skills with his experience of laying out the grounds at Sustead. He coined the term 'landscape gardener' and, keen to fill the void left by the death of Capability Brown in 1783, he wrote to his contacts in the upper classes to advertise his services. His first commission was at Catton Park in 1788.

Repton was complimentary about Brown's designs, a sound business tactic since many of his commissions involved fine-tuning earlier work. However, while Brown acted as both designer and contractor, Repton preferred to act as a consultant, leaving his clients to arrange the actual execution.

The Red Book

Repton presented his proposals in the form a leather-bound 'Red Book', in which he used his skills as an artist to illustrate his ideas with vibrant watercolours. Often, the illustration would depict the current arrangement, but with an overlay that could be pulled back to reveal the proposed changes beneath.

Repton designed more than 400 gardens during his 30-year career and produced around 200 Red Books. Many still survive, including the one produced for Uppark, for which he charged £42 (roughly £3,000 today).

" It would appear presumptive of me to suggest any improvement or alteration to a place which possesses so many natural advantages as Uppark."
- Humphry Repton, landscape gardener and designer (1752-1818)

Repton comes to Uppark

Repton produced a Red Book for Uppark in 1810 at the request of the estate's owner, Sir Harry Fetherstonhaugh. In it, he detailed plans for creating a new driveway and entrance on the north side, with a portico that linked to the house via a corridor lit by stained-glass windows.

Repton's Red Book illustrated his proposals for a new driveway and portico on the north side of the house.
Illustration from Repton's Red Book for Uppark
Repton's Red Book illustrated his proposals for a new driveway and portico on the north side of the house.

After the new stable block was built around 1750, carriages often inadvertently found themselves in what amounted to a service yard, leaving their guests to enter the house via the servants' entrance. Repton's alterations rectified this, complete with a far more enticing approach.

Not all of his plans were realised: the carriage turning circle was intended to feature a central lamp post as a focal point, but this was never added, while his proposal to make the house seem larger by linking it to the service blocks with colonnades was also not carried out.

Not all of Repton's proposals were carried out, such as the addition of colonnades to make the house appear larger.
Illustration from Repton's Red Book for Uppark
Not all of Repton's proposals were carried out, such as the addition of colonnades to make the house appear larger.

This was not unusual, and as Repton himself noted, his suggestions were laid out in such a way that they could be implemented in phases or with entire portions omitted.

However, although not mentioned in his Red Book, it seems likely Repton was responsible for the Game Larder, its octagonal design appearing in a letter to Sir Harry in 1812. As well as a focal point, it served to demonstrate the productivity of the estate and the quality of the shooting.

Repton, the interior designer

Beyond his suggestions in the Red Book, Repton continued to advise Sir Harry on a series of interior alterations in 1812-14.

The Dining Room was panelled with mirrored alcoves carefully designed to reflect the light in particular ways, and it was joined by a new Servery that allowed the servants more direct access from the basement. It was lit by a stained-glass window Repton was particularly proud of, designed by his son and backlit by oil lamps at night. Around 1814, Repton redecorated the Saloon in a new white and gold scheme, and added the bookcases along the north wall.

The Saloon at Uppark, one of many beautiful Georgian interiors
The Saloon at Uppark, West Sussex
The Saloon at Uppark, one of many beautiful Georgian interiors

Humphry and Sir Harry

Correspondence between Repton and Sir Harry suggests the two struck up a friendship during their time working together, with their letters including comment on current affairs as well as aspects of their personal lives.

In 1811, Repton was involved in a carriage accident that left him with mobility issues that occasionally prevented him from visiting Uppark. However, in 1815 he made what he described as the first visit he had "ever felt inclined to make independent of all professional pursuit" to visit Sir Harry who had, in Repton's words, become his "bosom friend."

By 1817 Repton's health was deteriorating, and he wrote to Sir Harry to, among other things, ask for recommendations on reading matter. He added "I am tired of writing and my life you know was finished when I was last at Uppark."

Repton died the following year, aged 65.

Credit: Parts of this article are based on the intellectual property of David Bridges, a National Trust volunteer. If you wish to use this information please email us on uppark@nationaltrust.org.uk.