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Repton's scenic subtleties

review

Humphry Repton: Landscape Gardening and the Geography of Georgian England by Stephen Daniels. Yale University Press, 1999. 317pp. £40Nothing changes. Humphry Repton, embarking on a new career as a landscape gardener in his mid-thirties, found that many of his clients considered that they could do his job equally well once they had received a few tips from a professional.

Repton's early years are peppered with intriguing ventures. After a few years working in the textile business between Norwich and the Netherlands, he tried his hand at farming in Norfolk, bolstered by a legacy from his father.

At the same time he was also pioneering a new mail-coach system and briefly became his landlord William Windham's private secretary at Dublin Castle where, so he wrote home to his wife, 'I have formed some connexions with the great'.

It was his situation on Windham's doorstep at Felbrigg Hall, bringing him into the Duke of Portland's political circle, that transformed Repton's prospects. Here too he made contact with Coke of Holkham and with the enlightened agricultural reformers of that corner of East Anglia. Repton's own 'farming experiment' soon came to an end, with his legacy. He moved to Romford in Essex and 'at the age of 36 years I commence a new career. I boldly venture forth once more'.

Norfolk for Repton, as for his contemporary John Soane, supplied his first jobs and continued to supply invaluable contacts. Here and there, intriguingly, the two men followed in each other's footsteps. At Honing, as at Tendring, Repton had the temerity to criticise Soane's work; he disliked the proportions of the house at Honing, and painted on a decorative string course to improve its appearance.

Stephen Daniels' important and handsome book is organised to reflect the physical domains of Repton's professional life - the routes, the different locations, the long-playing refrains of Rivenhall Place, Essex: with and without the overlays that were Repton's favourite device controversy. Always underlying Repton's quick rise, and later fall, was a feeling discontent - often due to the duplicity of partners and patrons, notably John Nash. Repton, with little sense of his own limitations, always wanted to be considered an architect, but had to settle for his son, John Adey, assuming the professional role instead.

Repton's approach to the design and redesign of landscape was an amalgam of his concerns and his own experience, memorably depicted in the Red Books with which he made his name. He was eager that productive agriculture should be seen to best advantage and was happy to bring the public into view, not always his client's dearest wish. At his last job in Sheringham, Norfolk, he welcomed what he termed the 'occasional glitter' of visitors coming to look over the grounds from the viewing temple, although he distinguished between 'the Tourists and Felicity Hunters of Cromer and the Coast' and more suitable persons.

When he worked at Armley, near Leeds, he carefully framed the industrial landscape ('softened by its misty vapour' as he euphemistically put it) and disguised the clothiers' houses, which dotted the district, behind dense planting. The mills, thrillingly lit by gas, were in Repton's opinion worth revealing; he considered their architecture, without Gothic trim or pretensions, attractively honest.

Repton's career suffered from 'war and taxes - pains and penalties', as from the 'opposition of stewards, the presumption or ignorance of gardeners, and the jealousy of architects and builders.' He was vilified by Richard Payne Knight, whose poem The Landscape took issue ostensibly with his aesthetic but also added a political undertone. Knight itched to stir up those calm lakes of the aristocrats into raging torrents, a revolutionary metaphor for the moment, 1794.

Repton, studiously apolitical, aspired to work for royalty but, despite his efforts at the Brighton Pavilion, received little but frustration in his dealings with the 'pseudo sovereign' (as he termed the Prince Regent).

Daniels' rewarding book shows Repton as a kindly man of diverse and complicated impulses, whose landscape designs were often surprisingly unformulaic and who thoughtfully responded to different locations and circumstances. His last request was for his own ashes to be laid in a Norfolk churchyard, where they would 'dissolve and form part of the garden mold ... soon [to] be converted into the pabulum of roses.'

Gillian Darley writes on architecture and landscape

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