Professor D, from the central Midlands, has challenged me for taking what the landscape gardener Humphry Repton said as any kind of guide to what Capability Brown did, when he was born a generation later and was a rival, keen to replace him.
Why should we wonder? Well – here are three separate arguments, see what you think.
- Over 100 of Repton’s red books survive, together with his published writing, and these are enough to trace the trajectory of his ideas over the 30 years of his practice (roughly 1787 – 1817). By extending this arc both forwards and backwards I like to extrapolate both the style of his predecessor, Brown, and the direction that landscape design was taking at the time of Repton’s death. I’d like to believe that we can do that even though the changes that took place in agriculture and land management during the 1780’s alone meant that Repton never really understood Brown.
- Repton himself claimed to follow Brown: ‘I must not, in this place, omit to acknowledge my obligations to Launcelot Brown, Esq., late member for Huntingtonshire, the son of my predecessor, for having presented me with the maps of the greatest works in which his later father had been consulted, both in their original and improved states’. Even his obituary judged him to be more of a follower of Brown than an original.
- In his first published work Repton made clear his grand intention to formulate a set of rules for landscape gardening based on inherited (i.e. Brownian) practice (‘If it should appear that, instead of displaying new doctrines, or furnishing novel ideas, it serves rather, by a new method, to elucidate old established principles, and to confirm long received opinions, I can only plead in my excuse, that true taste, in every art, consists more in adapting tried expedients to peculiar circumstances, than in that inordinate thirst after novelty…’). He was also resigned to failure in this endeavour (‘I once thought it would be possible to form a complete system of Landscape Gardening, classed under certain general rules, to which this art is as much subject as Architecture, Music, or any other of the polite Arts: but, though daily experience convinced me that such rules do actually exist, yet I have found so much variety in their application … that I have preferred this mode of publishing … detached fragments.’).