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BOOK

REVIEW

Humphry Repton's Memoirs Edited by Ann Gore and George Carter. Michael Russell, 2005. 160pp.£15.95

Every so often, a manuscript appears in the sale rooms that opens wide a window on a period or topic. After the British Library bought Humphry Repton's (incomplete) memoirs about 20 years ago, readers there could enjoy a documentary account of an aspirant profession and the world in which it operated.

Repton the landscape architect was perpetually at odds with his brethren, the architects and surveyors.

For his Red Books, the famous 'before and after' watercolours in which he envisaged changes to a stretch of countryside, a park, a garden or a house - few of which would be carried out - he was paid a pittance, 'my ten guineas' while they got fees of several hundred pounds. His relationship with John Soane is a story in itself and, yet, one of unusual mutual respect and honesty. Repton wrote, 'I have been fencing to parry his blows.' Repton's opinionated, humane account of his working life is a delight, both entertaining and informative.

He offered a mixture of gossip, self justification and genuine interest in his fellows as he travelled the country, staying in grand establishments where he was lodged with variable degrees of hospitality, according to perceptions of his status.

Politically engaged and with at least a hint of radicalism, he recalls how his neighbour the wheelwright was driven out when his landlord doubled the rent, and has as much to say of the new rich as the old.

His ear for conversation, his sense of the movement of events - he returns to landed estates where he had been employed 15 or 20 years before to find all gone, the house demolished - and his sparky wit all show him to be a latter day John Aubrey, even if on a limited canvas.

'Whether it is the solar system or the wheel of fortune, nothing stands still, ' says Repton, and his ability to capture those passing episodes is remarkable.

Had they known that their landscape architect retired to his room, not to sleep but to observe their quirks, his clients might have handled him differently but for us, the result is a classic.

Gillian Darley writes on architecture and landscape

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