Norfolk’s answer to Capability Brown

Sheringham Park: Repton's masterpiece.

Sheringham Park: Repton's masterpiece. - Credit: James Bass ©2003

Ian Collins looks at the life of an East Anglian great: landscape architect Humphry Repton.

In 1811 an eminent East Anglian was returning with his daughters from a ball when their carriage – and his career – overturned. Never fully recovering from the injuries he sustained, Humphry Repton died a bitter and defeated man seven years later.

His tomb, against a wall of Aylsham church, is decorated with a flowery epitaph but his main epitaph is writ large across our countryside.

Indeed, he helped to change the face of England.

For Repton succeeded Capability Brown as England's leading landscape architect from the 1780s with a passion to replace the naturalistic with the picturesque.

He worked on more than 400 commissions, including the Norfolk parks of Barningham, Catton, Felbrigg, Gunton, Hanworth, Holkham, Honing, Hoveton St Peter, Northrepps, Oxnead, Sheringham, Stradsett, Sustead, Tofts, Witton and Wood halls.

He also criss-crossed the county to adorn the grounds of Bracondale Lodge, Buckenham House, Hoveton House, Lyng Rectory and Worstead House.

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Almost a score of projects in Suffolk included Helmingham, Henham, Heveningham, Kentwell, Redgrave, Rendlesham and Tendring halls.

Travelling at least 500 miles in a typical month, our roving genius enhanced great estates across England – Tatton Park, Welbeck, Wentworth Woodhouse, Woburn.

After a stormy partnership with the architect John Nash he competed for royal commissions, laid out London garden squares (Russell, Cadogan, Bloomsbury) and designed prospects to frame several cities emerging with the industrial era.

In 1806, in what should have been the pinnacle of his success, Repton submitted grand plans for an Indian-style Brighton Pavilion to the Prince of Wales. Alas, the spendthrift future George IV then ran out of cash. Years later Nash was paid to revive the project with a design drawing heavily on Repton's work. That completed his sense of raging rejection.

How strange that such a natural pessimist should have made his mark in a profession showing such faith in eternity – or, at least, in the idea that paper plans could blossom into blissful scenes over the course of centuries.

Repton was born in Bury St Edmunds, the son of an excise officer who soon moved his family to Norwich.

Aged 12 he was packed off to Holland for training as a merchant – the first of several lines of business in which the young man was destined to fail.

Back in Norwich he fell in love with Mary Clarke and remained so for the rest of his life.

After 40 years of marriage the man who despaired in everyone and everything else wrote to his spouse: 'I fixed my hopes where they have never been disappointed.'

Although he made a little money from marketing Norfolk lace, brocades and satin, parental bequests in his twenties pitched Repton towards the life of a country gent at Sustead Old Hall near Aylsham.

While that lurch towards upward mobility secured him the aristocratic contacts which would establish him as a landscape gardener from the age of 36, it had a more immediate downward effect on his wealth.

With the arrival of the first of his 16 children (nine of whom would die in infancy), Repton could not support his stately pretensions.

So he and his family shifted to a far humbler home near Romford in Essex – near to the spot where the A12 now runs into the sprawl of London.

Even then the prospect was unpromising, so Repton made things more picturesque by annexing a village green and screening off an ugly world with shrubs, hedges and trellising.

Perhaps the greatest achievement of this most prolific landscape gardener lies on the north Norfolk coast in the woodland garden of Sheringham Park, most splendid in spring with a spectacular display of rhododendrons and azaleas.

Now run by the National Trust, the estate – with stunning views of coast and countryside from paths and viewing towers in a hilly setting – had its origins in a never-fully-realised tribute to Lord Nelson.

But nature – and man – has a way of amending and annexing our best-laid plans.

Two centuries after they were first plotted, Humphry Repton's designs look less picturesque than perfectly natural.

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