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Image for the news item 'Rare book of the week: Repton's 'Red Books'' on 7 May 2020
The two plates from Repton’s Fragments on the theory and practice of landscape gardening (London, 1816) show ‘Before’ and (after lifting the flap) ‘After’ at Beaudesert in Staffordshire, demolished in 1932.

Continuing from last week’s theme of learning to paint landscape in watercolour brings us to some books in Graham Watson’s collection published by someone who built a successful career out of selling clients the landscapes he painted – turned into reality in their own gardens.

In 1788, five years after the death of Capability Brown, Humphry Repton (1752-1818) launched himself as a landscape designer, after several unsuccessful previous ventures. He was 36, with four children and no secure income. He had no previous experience at garden design, but one thing he was good at was sketching. Repton set up business as what we would now call a consultancy. He presented his clients with a portfolio of his watercolours depicting their park or garden. His stroke of genius was to present these watercolours with a series of hinged flaps. On the flaps was painted the boring and unsatisfactory current state of the property. When clients lifted up these flaps they could see the temptingly beautiful transformations of their landscapes that Repton proposed. Repton had these flapped watercolours and his handwritten proposals bound in red leather for presentation to his clients. These ‘Red Books’ became his trademark: each was a unique artwork and many survive.

The two plates (above) from Repton’s Fragments on the theory and practice of landscape gardening (London, 1816) show ‘Before’ and (after lifting the flap) ‘After’ at Beaudesert in Staffordshire, demolished in 1932.

By the time Repton started in business the fashion for Capability Brown landscapes was fading, and although Repton initially positioned himself as Brown’s successor he soon moved to distance himself. Like Brown, Repton often advised felling trees to open up vistas. But Brown’s formula for great expanses of lawn sweeping right up to the house had had its day. Repton’s solutions involved bringing back a garden and flowers close to the house, with gravel walks and formal terraces and balustrades. In this, Repton is in the business of restoring a sense of foreground to the Brownian wide landscape. What he recommends for that foreground can seem a little cluttered and even fussy to a modern eye, but he proved to be the forerunner of long-running Victorian gardening fashions.

Brown had the grandest clients, but although Repton had some grand clients too, his client base was more mixed socially, and he advised on some distinctly modest properties. Repton could rarely work on Brown’s scale, and his business model was different. Brown sold a total service to his clients, implementing his designs himself on the basis of plans and maps provided to the client, and never publishing any account of his work. Repton charged a fee for the designs in his Red Books, but it was for the client to implement those designs, and inevitably many were only partially implemented or not at all. Yet Repton’s Red Books – and the illustrations from them that Repton recycled in engraved form in the books he published promoting his ideas on gardens and landscape – enable us to know much more of Repton’s work than remains on the ground. So it is with Repton’s fruitless aspirations to royal patronage: he drew up plans for a summer palace at Brighton in the Indian taste, but his rival John Nash got the job and built the Brighton Pavilion. Nothing daunted, Repton then published his own ideas in a lavish hand-coloured book (included in the Graham Watson collection), with all Repton’s usual techniques of hinged overlays to show the magical transformations that Repton might have provided. 

Barry Windeatt (Keeper of Rare Books)

Images by Helen Carron (College Librarian)

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