Humphry Repton, the First Landscape Gardener, 1752 - 1818, garden designer, landscape designer, celebrating repton, picturesque landscape gardening style

Humphry Repton – the First Landscape Gardener

Did you know that Humphry Repton coined the term ‘Landscape Gardener’?

Living and working in between parklands of Capability Brown and Victorian carpet bedding he played a critical role in garden history and in British gardens. He has been hailed as the early proponent of the Gardenesque style, which was brought to fruition in the C19th by John Claudius Loudon and his wife Jane.


Born in Norfolk in April 1752, he carried out many landscaping commissions in East Anglia. It was always his favourite part of England. However, he lived for much of his life in the village of Hare Street in Essex, dying there in March 1818. Unlike many who are famous post mortem, Repton achieved fame in literature during his lifetime. Jane Austen, one of my favourite authors, refers to him in her novel “Mansfield Park” (1814)

Humphry Repton cottage, hare street village, essex

Repton’s cottage in Hare Street

The design style of Humphry Repton

It is interesting that when Repton began, his commissions were very Brownian in feel. This did not impress members of the Picturesque Movement, who had thought he was ‘one of theirs’. Uvedale Price and Richard Payne Knight were not pleased that yet more bland landscape parks were being created. But Repton was responding to the wishes of his fashionable wealthy clients as much as to his own desires for a new landscape garden style. Creating a terrace viewpoint from which the owners and guests could admire the parkland was one element of his tweaking of Capability Brown’s style.
As the years went by, he produced designs which fitted the Picturesque Landscape Garden style. But through his love of flowering plants, and the changes in society he developed the smaller landscapes that became known as the Gardenesque style.

Humphry Repton portrait

The rise of an influential and wealthy bourgeoisie with fewer acres to landscape had a profound influence on Repton’s designs. He understood their need to ‘borrow’ the surrounding land to give the impression of more acreage or to hide a neighbour’s house. It is a trick that many garden designers have to use today in our densely populated island.

I find it irritating that some castigate the fact that his designs were not all landscaped by Repton himself. He was not the astute businessman that Capability Brown was, but he was nevertheless an inspired designer. The design concepts he created for his clients included maps, watercolour paintings and copious accompanying notes. This is what they paid for. There are garden designers today who create a design for a client but are not involved in the construction of the design.

These design concepts were, of course, the famous Red Books.


Humphry Repton and the Red Books

He created somewhere between 200 -400 Red Books and they were a major innovation. Nothing like this had been seen outside the theatre before. A painting or sketch showed the house and grounds as they currently were. Then flaps were slid or placed across to reveal Repton’s new landscape design.

This was a technique used for designing stage sets. And it was a very clever piece of marketing by Repton. Many of the families kept the Red Books even when they didn’t have the whole design built. There are still about 160 known to be in existence after more than 200 years. Named the Red Books after the Moroccan leather covers, some were actually covered with blue or green leather, but hey, artistic license.

sundridge park, red book, humphry repton, garden museum london, city & country ltd

Sundridge Park Red Book, 1793, on loan to the Garden Museum from City & Country Ltd

If you’d like to see some for yourself, the Garden Museum in London has an exhibition of 24 of Repton’s Red Books until February 2019. The largest number put on display together.
Some of the houses and gardens mentioned below also have their copies on display, when not on loan to the exhibition.


What defines a Humphry Repton landscape?

As well as producing his Red Books, Humphry Repton wrote books on his expert subject. I think, the man himself may be best able to define the art of a landscape designer and gardener.

“The perfection of landscape gardening consists in the four following requisites.

First, it must display the natural beauties and hide the defects of every situation.

Secondly, it should give the appearance of extent and freedom by carefully disguising or hiding the boundary.

Thirdly, it must studiously conceal every interference of art. However expensive by which the natural scenery is improved; making the whole appear the production of nature only;

and fourthly, all objects of mere convenience or comfort, if incapable of being made ornamental, or of becoming proper parts of the general scenery, must be removed or concealed.”

Observations on the Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening, 1803


gothic folly, wimpole hall park and gardens, repton red book, london and wise, charles bridgeman, capability brown, picturesque garden landscape, romantic gardens


Humphry Repton Parks and Gardens

Gardens and parks which featured in Repton’s Red Books, so were influenced by his landscape design. Many of these are open to the public; NT stands for National Trust; HHA stands for Historic Houses. Others are in private ownership. This isn’t a complete list of the 400 parks and gardens designed by Repton, just a flavour of how he covered the country. Hopefully there’s one near you that you could go and explore!

Antony House, Cornwall NT Alice in Wonderland was filmed here
Ashridge Herts NT
Attingham, Shropshire NT
Catton Hall, Norfolk Repton’s first design contract
Endsleigh, Devon now a hotel
Glemham Hall, Suffolk
Hatchlands, Surrey NT
Holkham Hall, Norfolk HHA
Hylands Park Essex
Panshanger, Herts
Plas Newydd, Anglesey NT
Port Eliot, Cornwall, has a music and literary festival
Saling Grove, Essex HHA
Sheffield Park, East Sussex NT
Sheringham Hall, Norfolk, maritime garden
Tatton Park, Cheshire, hosts the RHS Garden Show in July
Uppark, West Sussex NT
Welbeck Abbey Notts
Wentworth Woodhouse, South Yorkshire HHA
West Wycombe park, Bucks NT
Wimpole hall, Cambs NT
Woburn Abbey, Bedfordshire

I haven’t visited all of the above, but if it’s next year, or even 2020 when I get to some of the Repton landscapes I want to see, that’s fine. Because the inspiration of the first landscape gardener will still be there for me to see. Check out the Gardens Trust National Trust Historic Houses Association and individual gardens for opening times and more info.

And if you’d like Plews to help you create your own personal Repton landscape, with a 21st Century update, please get in touch


Related Gardening articles you may enjoy from our Award Winning Blog

Garden visits – Antony House Garden
Garden History – Rievaulx Terrace – Garden Visits
Capability Brown

Click here for taster video of the Repton Revealed exhibition at the Garden Museum.