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Lancelot “Capability” Brown and Humphry Repton

Humphry Repton

Who were Lancelot Brown and Humphry Repton? And what did they bring to the modern Georgian garden?

He talked of foregrounds, distances, and second distances — side-screens and perspectives — lights and shades; and Catherine was so hopeful a scholar that when they gained the top of Beechen Cliff, she voluntarily rejected the whole city of Bath as unworthy to make part of a landscape.
Northanger Abbey


Lancelot Brown

Lancelot Brown (1716 – 6 February 1783), more commonly known as Capability Brown, was an English landscape gardener. He is remembered as “the last of the great English eighteenth-century artists to be accorded his due”, and “England’s greatest gardener”. He designed over 170 parks, many of which still endure.

Born in Kirkharle, Northumberland, and educated at Cambo School, he began work by serving as a gardener’s boy in the service of Sir William Loraine. From there he moved on to Wotton, owned by Lord Cobham. He then joined Lord Cobham’s gardening staff, at Stowe, Buckinghamshire. There he served under William Kent, one of the founders of the new English style of Landscape Gardening. Whilst at Stowe, Brown married a local girl named Bridget Wayet and had the first four of his children.

As an exponent of the new English style, Brown became immensely sought after by the landed families. By 1751, Horace Walpole wrote of Brown’s work at Warwick Castle:

The castle is enchanting; the view pleased me more than I can express, the river Avon tumbles down a cascade at the foot of it. It is well laid out by one Brown who has set up on a few ideas of Kent and Mr. Southcote.

It is estimated that Brown was responsible for over 170 gardens surrounding the finest country houses and estates in Britain. His work still endures at Blenheim Palace, Kew Gardens, Warwick Castle, Bowood House, Milton Abbey (and nearby Milton Abbas village) and many other locations. This man who refused work in Ireland because he had not finished England was called “Capability” Brown because he would tell his landed clients their estates had great “capability” for landscape improvement.

His style of smooth undulating grass in which would run straight to the house, clumps, belts, scattering of trees and his serpentine lakes was a new style within the English landscape, and hence opened Brown to criticism by many landscape theorists. However, Brown has not only been criticised, he has also been praised by many.

His landscapes were at the forefront of fashion and they were fundamentally different to what they replaced. The well-known formal gardens of England that were the predominant style before his time were criticized by Alexander Pope and others in the early 1700s. Starting in 1719, William Kent, and then later Brown, replaced these with more naturalistic compositions, which reached their greatest refinement in Brown’s grammatical landscapes.

Russell Page described Brown’s process as “encouraging his wealthy clients to tear out their splendid formal gardens and replace them with his facile compositions of grass, tree clumps and rather shapeless pools and lakes”. Richard Owen Cambridge, the English poet and satirical author, declared that he hoped to die before Brown so that he could “see heaven before it was ‘improved'” this was a typical statement reflecting the controversy about Brown’s work, which has continued over the last 200 years. By contrast, a recent historian and author, Richard Bisgrove, described Brown’s process as perfecting nature by judicious manipulation of its components, adding a tree here or a concealed head of water there. His art attended to the formal potential of ground, water, trees and so gave to English landscape its ideal forms. The difficulty was that less capable imitators and less sophisticated spectators did not see nature perfected… they saw simply what they took to be nature.

This deftness of touch was not unrecognized in his own day; one anonymous obituary writer opined: “Such, however, was the effect of his genius that when he was the happiest man, he will be least remembered; so closely did he copy nature that his works will be mistaken”. Brown’s popularity declined rapidly after his death, because his work was seen as a feeble imitation of wild nature. During the nineteenth century he was criticised by almost everyone but during the twentieth century his popularity returned. Tom Turner has suggested that this resulted from a favourable account of his talent in Marie-Luise Gothein’s History of Garden Art which influenced Christopher Hussey’s positive account of Brown in his book on The Picturesque.

Brown died in 1783, in Hertford Street, London, on the doorstep of his daughter Bridget who had married the architect Henry Holland. Horace Walpole wrote to Lady Ossory: “Your dryads must go into black gloves, Madam, their father-in-law, Lady Nature’s second husband, is dead!”. He was buried in the churchyard of St. Peter and St. Paul, the parish church of Brown’s small estate Fenstanton Manor.

Humphry Repton

Humphrey Repton (April 21, 1752 – March 24, 1818), was the last great English landscape designer of the eighteenth century, often regarded as the successor to Capability Brown; he also sowed the seeds of the more intricate and eclectic styles of the nineteenth century. His first name is often incorrectly rendered “Humphrey”. Early life

Repton was born in Bury St Edmunds, the son of a collector of excise. In 1762 his father set up a transport business in Norwich, where Humphry attended the Grammar School. Aged 12 he was sent to Holland to learn Dutch and prepare for a career as a merchant. However, Repton was befriended by a wealthy Dutch family and the trip may have done more to stimulate his interest in ‘polite’ pursuits such as sketching and gardening.

Returning to Norwich, Repton was apprenticed to a textile merchant, then, after marriage to Mary Clarke in 1773, set up in the business himself. He was not successful, and when his parents died in 1778 used his modest legacy to move to a small country estate at Sustead, near Aylsham in Norfolk. Repton tried his hand as a journalist, dramatist, artist, political agent, and as confidential secretary to his neighbour William Windham of Felbrigg Hall during Windham’s very brief stint as Secretary to the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. Repton also joined John Palmer in a venture to reform the mail-coach system, but while the scheme ultimately made Palmer’s fortune, Repton again lost money.

His capital dwindling, Repton moved to a modest ‘cottage’ at Hare Street in Essex. In 1788, aged 36 and with four children and no secure income, he hit on the idea of combining his sketching skills with his limited experience of laying out grounds at Sustead to become a ‘landscape gardener’ (a term he himself coined). Since the death of Lancelot ‘capability’ Brown in 1783, no one figure had dominated English garden design; Repton was ambitious to fill this gap and sent circulars round his contacts in the upper classes advertising his services. His first paid commission was Catton Park in 1788.

That Humphry Repton, with no real experience of practical horticulture, became an overnight success, is a tribute to his undeniable talent, but also to the unique way he presented his work. To help clients visualise his designs, Repton produced ‘Red Books’ (so called for their binding) with explanatory text and watercolours with a system of overlays to show ‘before’ and ‘after’ views. In this he differed from Brown, who had worked almost exclusively with plans and rarely illustrated or wrote about his work.

To understand what was unique about Repton it is useful to examine how he differed from Brown in more detail. Brown had worked for many of the wealthiest aristocrats in Britain, carving huge landscape parks out of old formal gardens and agricultural land. While Repton worked for equally important clients, such as the Dukes of Bedford and Portland, he was usually fine-tuning earlier work, often that of Brown himself. Where Repton got the chance to lay out grounds from scratch it was generally on a much more modest scale. On these smaller estates, where Brown would have surrounded the park with a continuous perimeter belt, Repton cut vistas through to ‘borrowed’ items such as church towers, making them seem part of the designed landscape. He contrived approach drives and lodges to enhance impressions of size and importance, and even introduced monogramed milestones on the roads around some estates, for which he was satirised by Thomas Love Peacock as ‘Marmaduke Milestone, esquire, a Picturesque Landscape Gardener’ in Headlong Hall.

Capability Brown had been a large-scale contractor, who not only designed, but also arranged the realisation of his work. By contrast, Repton acted as a consultant, charging for his Red Books and sometimes staking out the ground, but leaving his client to arrange the actual execution. Thus many of Repton’s 400 or so designs remained wholly or partially unexecuted and, while Brown became very wealthy, Repton’s income was never more than comfortable.

Early in his career, Humphry Repton defended Brown’s reputation during the ‘picturesque controversy’. In 1794 Richard Payne Knight and Uvedale Price simultaneously published vicious attacks on the ‘meagre genius of the bare and bald’, criticising his smooth, serpentine curves as bland and unnatural and championing rugged and intricate designs, composed according to ‘picturesque’ principals of landscape painting. Repton’s defence of Brown rested partly on the impracticality of many picturesque ideas; as a professional, Repton had to produce practical and useful designs for his clients.

Paradoxically, however, as his career progressed Repton drew more and more on picturesque ideas. One major criticism of Brown’s landscapes was the lack of a formal setting for the house, with rolling lawns sweeping right up to the front door. Repton re-introduced formal terraces, balustrades, trellis work and flower gardens around the house in a way that became common practice in the nineteenth century. He also designed one of the most famous ‘picturesque’ landscapes in Britain at Blaise Castle. At Woburn Abbey, Repton foreshadowed another nineteenth century development, creating themed garden areas including a Chinese garden, American garden, arboretum and forcing garden.

Buildings played an important part in many of Repton’s landscapes. In the 1790s he often worked with the relatively unknown architect John Nash, whose loose compositions suited Repton’s style. Nash benefited greatly from the exposure, while Repton received a commission on building work. Around 1800, however, the two fell out, probably over Nash’s refusal to credit the work of Repton’s architect son John Adey Repton. Thereafter John Adey and Repton’s younger son George often worked with their father, although George continued to work in Nash’s office as well. It must have been particularly painful for Repton when Nash secured the prestigious work to remodel the Royal Pavilion at Brighton for the Prince Regent, for which Repton had himself submitted innovative proposals in an Indian style.

In 1811 Repton suffered a serious carriage accident which often left him needing to use a wheelchair for mobility. He died in 1818 and is buried in the Churchyard at Aylsham.

Three roads close to the vicinity of his cottage at Hare Street (now renamed Main Road) in Essex have been named after him; Repton Avenue, Repton Gardens and Repton Drive repectively. A small plaque was unvield in his memory on 19th April 1969 on the site of his cottage, now rebuilt as a branch of Lloyds TSB, situated on the junction of Hare Street and Balgores Lane.

Repton published three major books on garden design: Sketches and Hints on Landscape Gardening (1795), Observations on the Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening (1803), and Fragments on the Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening (1816). These drew on material and techniques used in the Red Books. Several lesser works were also published, including a posthumous collection edited by John Claudius Loudon. More information and excerpts from Repton’s books may be found at www.mkheritage.co.uk.

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