Norfolk landscape designer Humphry Repton
PUBLISHED: 11:54 13 March 2018 | UPDATED: 12:13 13 March 2018
Archant Norfolk 2016
When you visit the rolling splendour of Sheringham Park or discover the trees and meadows of edge-of-city Catton Park you are not just seeing the beauty of nature, but also the work of Norfolk landscape genius Humphry Repton. Rowan Mantell finds out more on the 200th anniversary of his death
Some of the grandest and loveliest gardens in the land were designed by a Norfolk man. Humphry Repton even came up with the term ‘landscape gardener’ as he revamped the vast estates of 18th and 19th century England.
The man who designed gardens and parkland for Kensington Palace, Longleat, Woburn Abbey, Sheringham Park and in London’s Russell Square at the heart of the Bloomsbury development, began by designing his own garden at Sustead, near Aylsham.
Then, exactly 230 years ago, he planned the sweeping gardens and parkland which are still enjoyed by walkers, runners, families and picnickers at Catton Park, just north of Norwich.
It was the first of hundreds of landscaping commissions for Humphry, who was brought up in Norwich and began his working life apprenticed to a textile merchant. He tried careers in writing, art, business, and even reforming the mail coach postal system, before he realised he could combine his gift as a painter and interest in gardens.
In his mid 30s, Humphry and his wife Mary had four children, and no secure regular income. But as word of the beautiful landscapes he conjured from fields and woodland spread through the aristocracy he was soon a gardening celebrity, producing designs for some of the grandest families in Britain.
He became famous for “before and after” paintings, presented in red books, which showed his wealthy clients how he planned to transform their views.
- “Borrowing” picturesque views such as distant church towers or beauty spots, from outside the land owned by a client.
- Adding lodges, towers and cottages to parkland.
- Putting formal sections of the gardens, including terraces, paths, and flowers, close to the main house so that they could be seen and enjoyed easily.
- Themed areas, including Chinese, American and specialist tree and flower gardens.
Humphry’s many Norfolk designs include the parkland around Gunton Hall, near Cromer, Honing Hall, near North Walsham, and Barningham Hall, near Dereham, and he ventured into architecture too, with his sons, designing Hoveton Hall, near Wroxham.
He went on to publish several books on garden design, as well a history of the Norfolk village of Erpingham and essays on incorporating Greek, Gothic and Indian architecture into gardens - and he is even mentioned in Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park.
Sheringham Park is acknowledged as one of his finest achievements. He would never have seen the full glory of pinks, purples and reds as hundreds of mature rhododendrons and azaleas come into bloom, but he was able to imagine and paint the future for his clients.
In 1811 he was injured in a carriage accident and used a wheelchair for the final seven years of his life, dying aged 65 in March 1818. He is buried in a small garden beside St Michael’s Church, Aylsham. The gravestone declares, in his own words: “Not like Egyptian tyrants consecrate, unmixed with others shall my dust remain, but mold’ring, blending, melting into earth. Mine shall give form and colour to the rose, and while its vivid colours cheer mankind, its perfumed odours shall ascend to heaven.”
Celebrating the Norfolk gardener who landscaped a nation
The 200th anniversary of Humphry Repton’s death is being marked around the country, with a particular focus on Norfolk where the Humphry Repton 200 Season launches in Aylsham on Friday March 23. Events include:
- The Repton 200 Trail, which walks visitors through Humphry’s Aylsham links from Friday, March 23 to Sunday, June 3.
- A workshop exploring Repton’s style, and his ideas about landscape and society, will be led by Tom Williamson, professor of landscape history and archaeology at the university of East Anglia, in Aylsham on March 24.
- A guided walk and exhibition at Catton Park, near Norwich, on Sunday, March 25.
- An exhibition of paintings and drawings of Repton landscapes will be held at Aylsham town hall from Friday, April 6 to Sunday, April 8.
- Hear the Gospel of Wildflowers as Bishop Tony Footitt explores the meaning and symbolism of flowers on Wednesday, May 2.
- Find out more about the history of Old Catton, near Norwich, via the medium of wheelbarrows! The village horticultural club his organising a trail of decorated wheelbarrows from May 7-13.
- The Repton Memorial Lecture will be given on Saturday, May 19, in Aylsham parish church, by Repton expert Stephen Daniels, of the University of Nottingham.
- The Prophet in His Own Country is the title of a fully-booked conference led by the Norfolk Gardens Trust, in Cromer on June 1-2, including visits to Repton landscapes.
Other events include open gardens, toddler gardening sessions, a celebratory church service and children’s crafting. The Humphry Repton 200 Season has been put together by people from Aylsham church, history society and heritage centre, plus Broadland District Council, the Norfolk Gardens Trust, the National Trust and Norwich School.
Inspired by Repton
Modern-day Norfolk landscape gardener George Carter, of Silverstone Farm, North Elmham, near Dereham, near has been inspired by Humphry Repton throughout his career.
George’s latest book, to be published in May, is Setting the Scene: A Garden Design Masterclass from Repton to the Modern Age.
The lavishly illustrated book, priced at £50, is packed with ideas and advice and follows the pattern set by Repton’s Red Books in charting the process of designing a garden from first plans to finished product.