Humphrey Repton’s Influence on Gardening
In the 1790’s and the early years of the 19th century, the landscape gardener who took on the mantle of Capability Brown was Humphry Repton (he was, incidentally, the first to use that title of himself). As a skilled water-colourist, one of his great virtues for an unimaginative patron was that he invariably painted a picture ofto be improved and then a clever painted cut-out which lifted off to show what the finished scheme would look like. His clients found the method irresistible and many of his Red Books (Repton bound the paintings and the accompanying report in red Moroccan leather covers) still exist. What was particularly important with this method is that it emphasised what aspects of the scene would be best hidden and what would be better exposed to view. It’s a fascinating game we can all try, even if we can’t draw, photographs can now obviously take the place of drawings.
Repton’s Red-Book drawings were concerned, almost inevitably, with the broad landscape stretching out from the windows of a grand country house. They showed how a group of trees, for example, would be much more effective if increased to the size of a small wood; how a single fine oak would dominate a vista if the scrub round its base were removed; how the banks of a river or a lake might appear to best advantage; how to cut through a high hedgerow so that a distant church spire was brought into the garden scene.
But a famous pair of his drawings concerned his own little house at Gidea Park, Hare Street, now in Essex. Here he showed that by disguising the less pleasant features and bringing into view the best, even a small garden scene could be given new life.
Present day Examples
In our small 21st century gardens the emphasis seems always to have been upon disguising the compost heap, planting Russian vine over the garden shed or hiding the vegetables. This is only a part of what is necessary; if there is any scope at all, one should always look beyond the boundaries; there might be something worth looking at some way off. A prime example of stealing a view existed in a friend’s garden, coincidentally only a couple of hundred yards from where Repton’s house used to stand. The back gardens of a 1920’s housing estate bounded a small lawn-tennis club; all but one gardener rigorously kept up their end fences. My friend took his down and framed the gentle view with interesting plants. This use seemed to quadruple the size of his garden.
On a somewhat grander scale a long narrow garden needed a feature as an eye-catcher to close the view. When some miserablewere removed it was possible to align the garden’s vista on a magnificent Victorian campanile — in fact a pumping house chimney — half a mile away.
These are exceptional cases — we are not all blessed with tennis-courts or architectural features (let alone fairies) at the bottom of the garden. But they reinforce the desirability of discovering ‘What have I got?’, and then making the most of it. The effort is worthwhile and endlessly fascinating.