The Repton Gazette and Brown Advisor

300 Frequently Asked Questions about Capability Brown, and a further 200 about Humphry Repton

1830: what is Repton’s reputation?

Oofy here: Editorial: Time for candour. Point is. Reppers had no class. Stood at the wrong end of m’ punt. Cambridge man. Tryin’ too hard. Same as Jane Austen. I mean muddled. Class-wise. Point is. He was a travelling salesman. Comes up your drive. Uninvited. Dust on his boots. Offers for a meal. A few quid. A few sketches of your park and an introduction to the next estate along. Gets his feet under the table. Asks for a few quid more. Offers to change everything. Dam’ cheek. An amateur. And charges.

The Editor bars the Type-Setter from correcting what he writes. The Editor sees Repton as a social phenomenon, having no significance outside his generation and his society. His work is of interest only in so far as it illuminates his times. If he is to be judged then it must be by his class (merchant), his financial success (none), his professional skill (he was unfitted for the work).

The Professor, for his part, claims that the Type-Setter is as incapable as the Editor of giving an unbiased opinion – both are hopelessly prejudiced by their background. Having first set his Editor, the Type-Setter finds himself obliged to translate the Professor’s statement of his own background as a critic:

‘For the Czech, having no home, no history, no knowledge of the local language, forced to speak one foreign language to a people that speaks another, equally foreign, his life is as empty as water; he is left alone to confront the terrible nothingness of an absolute truth, swirling round and round, searching for something to cling on to, without any hope of reprieve or respite, above the black O of the plug-hole – which is the final reckoning of absolute truth. For the Czech nothing has value that cannot hold up against that nothingness. The quality of Repton’s work cannot be tested against other works that he, the Professor, happens to have seen in his wanderings – in mainland Europe, in China, in Japan, in the United States – against works that share no contextual reference with Repton, that do not address the French revolution, the failures of Napoleon, or the Congress of Vienna. If we may not qualify then we can only quantify: how many bridges, how many lakes and woods, how many gardens.’ [Notes from the Professor, trans. the Type-Setter]

On being asked for his own opinion, the Type-Setter looks as always to reconcile to amity these opposing views. He begins with the acknowledgement that both Editor and Professor reject any claim that might be made for Repton as a designer of landscape. He then proceeds to a consideration of Repton’s sketches. Repton made himself a considerable water-colourist by the way he looked at landscape because he did not limit himself to the surfaces of what was there, he had (being a landscape gardener) to question and to illustrate the massing and volume of things: ‘their chief use is to explain various terms & situations, better than any map, & far better than mere words’.[1]

Yet his sketches look like conventional water-colours, with fore-grounds and middle grounds and perspective because he never confused the arts of painting and landscape gardening: “It is impossible to communicate to others, that which the professor of Landscape – gardening feels when he looks at objects with a painters eye, as it is for the painter to communicate his art of representing objects on canvass: A thousand beauties may be pointed out on the spot, which cannot be described by the pen or pencil; and many improvements suggested, of which no idea can be given on paper.”[2]

Thus also with the text of his red books (as the Editor has already pointed out) – they carry the unspoken assumption that there is no disagreement with his clients as to what landscape is and what it is for. Yet it is his superior understanding of that assumption that Repton has to sell if he is to be more than an arranger of furniture.

The Professor’s argument can reduce to the conclusion that a work of art can only be judged by the amount of intellectual freight it will carry. Then Repton’s masterstroke, like Jane Austen’s, was to thumb his nose at intellectual freight, to make landscapes of sensation, landscapes that rejected any rational underpinning and gardens whose ephemeral nature he himself acknowledged: ‘After visiting a place for several years in succession and becoming greatly attached to its inhabitants by witnessing domestic happiness which promised to be lasting – I have sometimes not returned to the same spot till the lapse of 10, 15 or 20 years – Alas! Too fatally marked by painful changes. The former scenes of happiness too often were flown … The house pulled down or its inhabitants removed or little children grown up – and the fond wife and mother replaced by a new mistress…’[3]

[1] Plas Newydd in the isle of Anglesey North Wales A Seat of The Rt. Honble the Earl of Uxbridge, 1799.

[2] HINTS, PLANS and SKETCHES, for the Improvement of Stonelands in Sussex. (15 Feb 1806).

[3] Humphry Repton, Memoir.


1840: was Repton a jobbing gardener?


1833: was Jane Austen an influence?

1 Comment

  1. A damning and unkind indictment Oofy, but not wholly untrue I fear.

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