Humphry Repton: Landscape Gardener and Jane Austen Inspirer

From Austen’s Mansfield Park:

In a recession society, stories of entrepreneurs “making it” after years of financial struggles and doomsday predictions are our psychological bread and butter.  Underdogs, late bloomers, scrappy fighters turned self-made–we love them.  Although removed from us by time and space, Humphry Repton, the 18th century’s last great English landscape gardener, was such a man. 

To call him a jack of all trades would be an understatement. Repton was great at two things, one of which was failing in professional pursuits.  When he was 12, his parents shipped him off to the Netherlands to cultivate his mercantile sensibilities . . . of which he had none.  Instead he was artsy, born. . .

He apprenticed as a textile merchant and set up his own shop, proving his stint at falling short of success was more than an abbreviated trend.  In 1778, his dismal lack of accomplishment magnified by his parent’s recent death, Humphry left his family home of Norwich, and treaded a course of trades in his new domicile of Sustead.  Among them, he was secretary to Lord Lieutenant of Ireland (briefly), a journalist, a political agent (read: consultant and possibly unemployed), a dramatist, an artist, a reformer of mail coach system,  etc., etc.  In short, the fellow lost a lot of capital.

Fast forward ten years to 1788.  Our dear Humphry is 36, broke, and a father to four children.  Earlier in his youth while training to be a merchant, he’d hobnobbed with a wealthy Dutch family wherein he acquired a penchant for botanical sketches.  This interest later played a pivotal role in his future when his botanist friend, James Edward Smith, encouraged him to study the subject for who is Repton’s neighbor in Sustead but Mr. Wyndham, owner of a vast library containing works on botany.  What luck!  Mr. Wyndham was also coincidentally named Lord Lieutenant of Ireland during their acquaintance which explains Repton’s secretarial work.   

This is the point where everthing changes for Repton.  After years of floundering, he has acquired three avenues that point toward his future success:  a network of wealthy, high class individuals (who, of course, require gardens), access to the right information, and a compendium of personal experience achieved through improving upon his own country property in Sustead.  Humphry Repton, dignified landscape gardner is thus born.

Armed with no real horticultural experince, it comes as somewhat of a suprise that Repton’s designs, displayed through his watercolors, were an immediate  sensation.  What made Repton different from his peers was his ability to work with an established character and situation of a  house and its adjoining landscape.  He improved upon designs of other artists, choosing to deviate from a garden’s traditionally straight paths by opening up natural vistas to incorporate bordering architecture, say a church spire, or compelling topography, such as rolling hills, into his scheme.  He published “Red Books”, landscape designs reminiscent of “before” and “after” makeovers found in today’s fashion magazines.  Although he received criticism by others in his profession for his straightforward, simple designs, he worked with nature’s dictates, not against them.  As a result, his work was made more affordable because he didn’t tear out existing structure, but modified, added, and enhanced.  Neither informed by asceticism nor our modern sense of minimalism, he approached his design with the pragmatism common today.  This is apparent in the Red Book of Stanage Park:

 An impressive “before” and “after” of Harleston House and Park, illustrating improvments in symmetry and balanced architecture, is shown below:

Regarding Jane Austen

During Repton’s thirty years as a landscape architect, he gained over 400 commissions and worked on a number of beautiful 18th century estates, some of which are mentioned in Jane Austen’s novels (Blaise Castle, for example).   Austen was no stranger to Repton herself, having seen Adlestrop house in person,  and was known to be an admirer of his work.  Mr. Darcy’s Pemberly house is Repton personified:

ELIZABETH , as they drove along, watched for the first appearance of Pemberley Woods with some perturbation; and when at length they turned in at the lodge, her spirits were in a high flutter.

The park was very large, and contained great variety of ground. They entered it in one of its lowest points, and drove for some time through a beautiful wood, stretching over a wide extent.

“Elizabeth ‘s mind was too full for conversation, but she saw and admired every remarkable spot and point of view. They gradually ascended for half a mile, and then found themselves at the top of a considerable eminence, where the wood ceased, and the eye was instantly caught by Pemberley House, situated on the opposite side of a valley, into which the road with some abruptness wound. It was a large, handsome, stone building, standing well on rising ground, and backed by a ridge of high woody hills; — and in front, a stream of some natural importance was swelled into greater, but without any artificial appearance. Its banks were neither formal, nor falsely adorned. Elizabeth was delighted. She had never seen a place for which nature had done more, or where natural beauty had been so little counteracted by an awkward taste. They were all of them warm in their admiration; and at that moment she felt, that to be mistress of Pemberley might be something!

They descended the hill, crossed the bridge, and drove to the door; and, while examining the nearer aspect of the house, all her apprehensions of meeting its owner returned. She dreaded lest the chambermaid had been mistaken. On applying to see the place, they were admitted into the hall; and Elizabeth , as they waited for the housekeeper, had leisure to wonder at her being where she was.

The housekeeper came; a respectable-looking, elderly woman, much less fine, and more civil, than she had any notion of finding her. They followed her into the dining-parlour. It was a large, well-proportioned room, handsomely fitted up. Elizabeth , after slightly surveying it, went to a window to enjoy its prospect. The hill, crowned with wood, from which they had descended, receiving increased abruptness from the distance, was a beautiful object. Every disposition of the ground was good; and she looked on the whole scene, the river, the trees scattered on its banks, and the winding of the valley, as far as she could trace it, with delight.”

 For more on Repton and Austen, visit these links

 

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