Humphry Repton’s Memoirs

Posted on January 20th, 2010 by Charles Boot

Ann Gore and George Carter (eds), Humphry Repton’s Memoirs (Wilby: Michael Russell, 2005), 160 pp., illus. in black-and-white, £15.95 (hbk), ISBN 0859552950

This is a welcome first appearance in print of the surviving second part of Humphry Repton’s Memoir, which he wrote c.1814–15 and which is now in the British Library. The volume includes the ‘Biographical Notice’, attributed to John Adey Repton, which prefaced John C. Loudon’s 1840 edition of Repton’s works. Until the manuscript was acquired by the British Library in 1981, the Biographical Notice, which is based on the lost first part of his Memoir and charts Repton’s life up to 1788, was all we had. The second section, which seems to have been at least partly prepared for publication, begins with his taking up a new career as a landscape gardener. It is particularly interesting in revealing how he saw himself and his status. This can be painful: Repton was sensitive and received a good many slights from clients, not least from the Prince of Wales, whose treatment of Repton over the Brighton Pavilion is excruciating to read. Towards those he viewed as inferior, however, Repton’s disdain can seem equally pointed. The Memoir pinpoints the ambiguous position of a man whose status hovered somewhere between artist and tradesman.

Repton saw the French wars, when ‘everyone trembled for the safety of old England’, as a disaster for the society in which he worked, and he is at his most scathing when he views the rise of war profiteers. His job gave him plenty of opportunities to observe the removal of barriers between ‘the landed and monied classes’ and to mock the nouveaux riches. But the same ‘Squire Mushroom’ had been the butt of humour fifty years earlier when he appeared in Francis Coventry’s The World (12 April 1753), and in using the same trope, Repton infuses the satirical image with his own sense of thwarted ambition. He viewed his own career as one of disappointment and he extends his interpretation of his own failure to others – ‘my own profession, like myself, was becoming extinct’ – when in fact he had lived to see landscape gardening professed by many others, who, to his chagrin, often undercut him. His disdain for the parvenus is fuelled by anxiety at the loss of his traditional clientele as much as for any ‘old England’. The poignancy of his reaction to the Prince’s betrayal stems from its shaking his faith in the traditional structures to which he had remained loyal. It does not, except very occasionally, give us much insight into Repton’s working methods or theories – for those, the Red Books and the published works remain the best guide. Repton is reticent here on these aspects, not least because his objective is to present himself not as an artisan but as an artist.

How then does Repton emerge from the Memoir? Certainly, he was eager to ingratiate himself, but the Memoir makes us sympathetic to this trait: for Repton, professional progress was dependent on social progress, because there was no professional structure available. Although he set out to follow Lancelot Brown, in practice Repton’s profession of ‘Landscape Gardener’ was significantly different from Brown’s. Brown saw his work as ‘Gardening and Place-making’: contractor, architect, engineer, agricultural improver; he saw himself literally as prosaic – ‘there I make a comma, and there … I make a colon’ – and Horace Walpole’s famous encomium highlights his self-effacement: ‘so closely did he copy nature that his works will be mistaken’. For Repton, the works were self-consciously works of art: proposals presented in watercolour views, reproducing his commissions in prints published by Peacock, and articulating his aesthetics in elaborate and expensive publications. This was inherently a flimsier working proposal than Brown’s.

The Editors’ note is disappointingly brief: the book cries out for an introductory essay. The footnotes are good on identifying clients, but do little more than supply biographical details. Although the Memoir now reads smoothly, I regret the decision to remove his capitals and exclamation marks. Nevertheless, it is good to have it in print, and the publication is handsome and reasonably priced.

David Lambert
Parks Agency

33:2 (Winter 2005)

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