How Humphry Repton's legacy lives on after two centuries
PUBLISHED: 13:41 24 March 2018
Humphry Repton, who transformed great East Anglian landscapes, died 200 years ago today. Don Black explores a unique heritage.
Sheringham Park on the north Norfolk coast remains what Humphry Repton described, among 400 gardens that drew his skills in the nation, as his “most favourite work.”
Not even Capability Brown, his more famous predecessor in the landscaping art, achieved as much.
Repton’s life touched every part of East Anglia - he was born in Suffolk, died in Essex and was buried in Norfolk - but his clients lived in every part of England and Wales.
He spent 10 early years at Bury St Edmunds, where he was born on April 21 1752, to John and Martha Repton, before the family moved to Norwich.
John was an excise official who collected tax from the well-to-do, noting changes in their estates and becoming wealthy himself as proprietor of coaches and waggons.
He saw his son Humphry as a potential tycoon in the Norwich textile industry and sent him away aged 12 to Rotterdam to pick up the finer points of the trade and learn Dutch, which was commercially useful.
Returning at 16, Humphry’s heart wasn’t in his apprenticeship and a textile company he founded verged on collapse.
He had just sufficient resources, however, to marry Mary Clarke in May 1773 and buy a small estate at Sustead, near Cromer, where he indulged happily in a mix of farming, sketching and music appreciation.
His life took another turn when his friend William Windham, of Felbrigg Hall, was appointed chief secretary to the lord lieutenant of Ireland and made Humphry his secretary.
But Dublin high life failed to suit either of them and they both came back to quieter Norfolk lives. Humphry then thought he would try a career in landscape gardening, which is what he had really wanted to do all along.
He sent his circular letter to all the landed gentry he could think of: “H. REPTON having for many years (merely as an amusement) studied the picturesque effect resulting from the art of LAYING OUT GROUNDS, has lately been advised by many respectable friends (to whom he has occasionally given sketches for the improvement of their own places) to pursue professionally his skill in LANDSCAPE GARDENING.”
Norwich merchant Jeremiah Ives, of Catton Hall, gave him his first paid commission in 1788, beginning Repton’s ascent to eminence.
Wherever he went from that time on he never lost his love for Norfolk. That being so, it’s curious that his memorial inscription Aylsham churchyard inscription is headed “Humphrey Repton of Hare Street in the County of Essex.”
His home for many years until his death on March 24 1818 was a cottage in a village of that name (now in Romford) on the old Ipswich-London road, handy for serving his numerous clients in and around the capital.
In Hare Street he wrote a poem about blossoming roses that appears on his memorial and could apply to his lifelong work.
Although in Norfolk he worked in 21 places, his second-highest total of any county after 38 in Essex (which then including much of London), Repton lamented: “There is hardly any part of England in which I am less known professionally than in Norfolk.”
He likened this to the Biblical explanation of a prophet being unknown in his own country.
Throughout his travels Repton regarded Aylsham as his true home. He kept in constant touch with his sister Dorothy and son William who lived in the town where his parents were buried.
There was a 14-year gap between his early Norfolk commissions and 1812, when he began making Sheringham his most complete and best-preserved example of an Englishman’s park and house.
Back in 1809 Repton had suggested that the Sheringham estate would well suit as the nation’s gift to Nelson’s family, in honour of the admiral who took pride in being a Norfolk man.
Sheringham owner Cook Flower happened to be a client of Repton’s solicitor son William, and they and other influential folk tried to convince the government, but without success.
Repton was keen on “humanising, as well as animating, beautiful scenery” by allowing visitors to explore it. Ownership by the National Trust since 1987 makes his easy.
Three other major properties he improved now belong to the Trust: Attingham Park near Shrewsbury and Sheffield Park in Sussex.
Their parks stay open all year, Sheringham coming comprehensively to life on March 10, with its visitor centre and cafe open every day of the week.
Repton’s visits for his work there were handicapped by injury in a carriage accident that confined him to a wheelchair for the rest of his life. He would be happy to know that Sheringham, despite some hilliness, is a most wheelchair-friendly place. Another is Catton Park, his first ‘job’, now attracting visitors for a variety of reasons.
Repton’s fondness for socialising led to the accident in south Essex that left him semi-paralysed.
He had taken his daughters Mary and Elizabeth to a ball in January 1811, and returning home on icy roads, their carriage overturned and he was thrown out. The girls escaped unhurt.
Sons John and George continued Humphry’s commissions under his direction. By 1816, in failing health, he created the very smallest of all his estate improvements - his own backyard in Hare Street.
He first won consent to extend his cottage garden by 20 yards into common land long used by wildfowl and for grazing cattle, pigs and geese.
Repton’s newly-beautified plot comprised a perfect lawn, raised beds and baskets of flowers, a pyramid of roses, lime trees garlanded with climbers and a hedge entwined with roses.
His ‘before’ sketch features a one-armed and one-legged beggar, perhaps to illustrate shoddy treatment of injured Napoleonic War veterans. For Repton had complained in his Red Book for Sheringham Park: “I see lame and blind beggars driven from the door.” While serving the rich he never lost his compassion for the poor.
Repton’s Suffolk legacy includes a part of the county seen by tens of thousands of festival-goers every year. Henham Hall near Blythburgh was demolished in 1953, but its great park has matured as Repton foresaw when he went there in 1790 at the request of Sir John Rous.
Of his 17 big and small commissions in Suffolk, Henham Park is by far the best known through its Latitude music festival every July. An obelisk tells visitors: “100 miles from London.” Exactly.
Two “Reptonised” parks close to his Bury St Edmunds birthplace, Livermere and Culford - also from the early 1790s - had futures that became total contrasts.
Culford survives, glorified by Wellingtonia trees planted in honour of the victor of Waterloo, surrounding the hall turned into a school.
Livermere Park, on the other hand, disappeared virtually without race. Two of Livermere’s ancient pivots remain, a church fallen into ruin and a mere that Repton described as “good-coloured water, wood and water beautifully connected with each other.”
The park has long laid under the plough; the hall was pulled down in 1923. Well before he arrived the village of Little Livermere itself vanished from sight as far as people on foot were concerned. I knew the church before its roof was removed in 1947 and found the crypt packed with lead coffins. It stands on private land is now too structurally dangerous to visit.
The best authorities give the total of known deserted villages in Suffolk as 38 and no fewer than 148 in Norfolk.
Thankfully the proportion of Repton’s parks still fully with us is more than 90%.
Events listed by the Gardens Trust to mark the Repton bicentenary begin today with a day programme at Aylsham led by Tom Williamson, professor of landscape history and archaeology at UEA. Others include a memorial address at Aylsham church on May 19 and a weekend on “The Prophet in his own country” at Cromer on June 1 and 2. Repton Walks start at Sheringham Park on March 24. The National Trust has exhibitions illustrating his work there and elsewhere.