Thursday, March 13, 2008

The Before and After Landscapes of Humphrey Repton






Long before cable TV popularized instant makeovers of houses, gardens, wardrobes, bodies and souls, Humphrey Repton knew the power of the 'before' and 'after'. His famous Red Books were presentation sketches for his potential clients; lovingly detailed watercolors with flaps that lifted or swept to the side to show in turn the existing landscape and how he proposed to improve it. They are still treasured in museums, national and municipal properties, and private homes across England.

There's a marketing lesson here...Repton's Red Books proved to be a poor strategy for economic success because they gave the client enough information to simply carry out the project themselves. Capability Brown, who preceded him, merely rode over the ground with clients, waving his arms to indicate the placement of vast lakes and and planting stakes where the clumps of trees would go. Meanwhile, his trusty and unjustly forgotten assistant Samuel Lapidge followed closely by, straining to hear the discussion between the great man and his clients and taking copious notes for the landscape that he would largely be the one to execute.

But the Red Books did ensure Repton's historical reputation...no other pre-19th century landscape designer left so complete a record of his approach to the landscape, his realized projects, and his unrealized imaginations. They ensured that he remained within the easy reach of historians, when even the great Capability faded from the scene and had to be re-discovered in the 1950s.

Repton summarized his approach in "Sketches and hints on landscape gardening : collected from designs and observations now in the possession of the different noblemen and gentlemen, for whose use they were originally made : the whole tending to establish fixed principles in the art of laying out ground" (gotta love those wordy 18th c. titles, description and scraping obeisance all in one), published in 1794.

I am pleased to find that it has been digitized in full color at the University of Wisconsin, the source of these images. Beautifully done; the image quality of their digital collection is one of the finest I've seen.

3 comments:

Frances, said...

Wonderful. Thanks for your continuing contribution to the understanding of gardeners from the past, I love hearing and learning about it.

Frances at Faire Garden

kjohnson said...

I was unaware of the digital project at U Wis. Thank you for the link.

Sara Fox said...

Do you know any more about Samuel Lapidge? I'm researching his involvement in the development of the Middleton hall estate in Carmarthenshire now the National Botanic Garden of Wales?

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