Herefordshire People: Humphry Repton - Making Arcadia

PUBLISHED: 17:18 09 February 2010 | UPDATED: 15:38 20 February 2013

Humprey Repton

Humprey Repton

Humphry Repton designed some of the Marches' most magnificent parklands; but as David Whitehead reveals, his career in Herefordshire got off to an inauspicious start. Photographs by Martin Griffiths.

In the autumn of 1789 Humphry Repton, having recently honoured himself with the invented title of 'Landscape Gardener', arrived at Ferney Hall, near Ludlow and inadvertently stepped into the lion's den.

Repton's conversion to landscape gardening had come after several abortive careers as a painter, farmer, political agent and more recently dramatist. He noticed that the death of 'Capability' Brown in 1783 had left a vacuum in the world of polite landscapes, so he decided to fill it. He sent out newly printed trade cards to his friends in the Home Counties, and during 1788-9 received at least 12 commissions.

One of the cards fell into the hands of Samuel Phipps, a London businessman who had recently bought a country estate at Ferney in Shropshire, north of Ludlow. With supreme confidence, after a brief visit, Repton produced one of his Red Books with before and after sketches, indicating his proposed improvements.

In front of the house as it stood was a formal terrace, flanked by two brick summerhouses, dropping abruptly into the countryside with distant views of Clee Hill. Repton's recommendations were to destroy the terrace and one of the summerhouses and bring the pastoral scenery - a common, grazed by cows and sheep - closer to the house. This was exactly the type of 'improvement' carried out by Brown, who erased hundreds of ancient gardens in this way, not to mention populated villages and their attached field systems - at Berrington Hall, for example.

Other suggestions illustrated in the Red Book included a new lake cut into an adjoining wooded dell and embellished with a classical boathouse, and further away some scenes imitating Switzerland, reconstructed in a disused quarry, from whence in the Middle Ages the stone for Ludlow Castle had been extracted. Mr. Phipps' response to these proposals is not recorded, but as a busy entrepreneur he was probably more concerned with the cost of execution than the finer points of artistry.

Less than three miles from Ferney to the south-west, high above the Teme Gorge, was Downton Castle, the precocious eyrie of the 'arbiter of modern taste', Richard Payne Knight. Even his enemies agreed that Knight had one of the most powerful creative minds of the late 18th century. Encouraged by his friend Uvedale Price of Foxley, he had been railing privately against the new breed of 'mechanic improvers', like Brown, who destroyed the intimacy and variety of the English countryside, imposing their own clich-ridden ideas upon distinct landscapes, often after only one or two visits to the place.

Knight was a regular visitor to Italy, where he admired the ancient formal gardens which had originally inspired those being destroyed by Brown in England. He had recently intervened at Powis Castle, where the veteran yews and their terraces were about to be blown up by another disciple of Brown.

On his own new estate Knight had followed Nature, creating walks along the Teme where the art of the improver - he hoped - was scarcely visible - 'art clandestine' he called it. He admitted to Price that he 'dreaded the approach of a professional improver' in his neighbourhood, only to discover that a self-styled 'landscape gardener', Repton, the avowed successor to Brown, was on his doorstep at Ferney Hall.

Knight was introduced to Repton and proceeded to dismiss his ideas in their entirety, presumably on the grounds that something mellow and charming was being replaced with some half-baked abstract ideas, which ignored the distinct virtues of the site. He particularly abhorred house owners who desired views and, in turn, wanted their smart villas to be seen by their neighbours. Mr Phipps' white-stuccoed house was just such an eye catcher. The vulgar boathouse, suggested by Repton, on its man-made stretch of water, was another piece of frippery, out of place in serious countryside.

Knight was a famous and influential man in the salons of London society, whilst Repton was just starting out on his third career. He could not afford to be ridiculed, so he invited Knight to assist him in revising the proposals for Ferney. Given his distain for 'professionals', Knight would probably have scoffed at this suggestion; but when Mr Phipps died, Repton found an escape route from almost certain ignominy.

Repton slowly came to understand that the world he was venturing into was in turmoil. The pastoral and classical certainties that had underpinned Georgian culture, and made 'Capability' Brown a millionaire, were fading rapidly, to be replaced by individual sentiment and sensibility, which all but ousted good sense and reason. The age of romanticism required a fresh approach to the landscape - picturesque rather than pastoral. The readers of Lyrical Ballads (1798) did not want nymphs and shepherds, but something more rugged and gritty - landscapes of association 'fit for the banditti'.

Remarkably, despite this inauspicious start, Repton had a very successful career in Herefordshire. In every sense of the word the Downton Gorge was unique, and most landowners in lowland England had arable or pastoral estates where the picturesque - as seen in the vivid imaginations of Knight, Wordsworth and Coleridge - was impossible to replicate on the ground.

Uvedale Price's reading of the picturesque was more approachable. He, after all, lived in the rolling countryside in central Herefordshire. Moreover, he believed that gentry-landscapes had to make a profit and thus, for him, the picturesque had to accommodate working and populated landscapes. He found a model in the Dutch landscape paintings of the 17th century.

He kept in touch with Repton and took him on a tour of the Wye Valley, hoping to sharpen his perceptions of different landscape forms. Very soon, much to Knight's chagrin, Repton was getting new commissions in the region.

Dr John Matthews, a London surgeon, had recently returned to his native county and bought the estate of Old Hill in the parish of Clehonger. He called it Belmont, and in 1788 engaged the fashionable architect James Wyatt to design a new house. Naturally, he turned to Wyatt's recent partner, Repton, for advice on the new parkland to be established around Belmont.

Old Hill had previously been an agricultural estate, so Repton eradicated the small fields and hedge boundaries, planting hanging woods on the riverside slopes with scattered trees in the park stretching towards the Hereford to Abergavenny road. Matthews, a minor literary figure, possibly aware of potential repercussions from the picturesque lobby, penned a 'fugative piece' - A Sketch from the Landscape - which defended the right of busy professional men of good taste to employ landscapers like Brown and now, Repton. The latter's circle of clients in Herefordshire continued to grow.

A retired Hereford solicitor, William Parry, bought the 'new built' house at New Weir, also overlooking the Wye, in the parish of Kenchester, in about1788. Soon after this date he too consulted Repton; and the mature planting that surrounds the National Trust property today is presumably the result.

While Repton was still involved at New Weir, in 1791, Mr Parry's neighbour, John Geers Cotterell of Garnons, also began a correspondence with Repton, which subsequently led to a survey in July. Wyatt had been asked to produce a design for a new house, which is shown in the Red Book as a long straggling gothic structure, set against the woodlands of Garnons Hill. Wyatt, who always took on too many commissions, never provided the finished drawings, and so Cotterell decided to defer the building of a new house for the duration of the war with France.

Repton, however, improved the park, made more spacious by the re-routing of the Kington turnpike, which had until now run just below the house. A small lake was created to act as a counterfeit Wye, when viewed from the house, and a model village was planned at the junction of the drive and the main road. This was eventually reduced to a single lodge. The new house was finally built after 1815.

Repton needed an architectural partner when he arrived at Stoke Edith in October 1792. Here, the late 17th century house had been damaged by fire and the Hon. Edward Foley had taken up residence at Prestwood, near Stourbridge. Once again, the creation of a new turnpike road, running through the meadows from Dormington to Tarrington, created opportunities for emparking, similar to Garnons. The old road to Gloucester, running just behind Stoke Edith house, could be erased, allowing the deer park on the slopes of the Woolhope Hills to run right down to the south front of the mansion.

Similarly, on the north side, a new park could be created on the arable fields, cut off by the sweeping arc of the new road. A walk through ornamental shrubberies followed the perimeter of the park and visited the new lodges, where ornamental seats were provided. Close to the rotunda lodge, looking down the road to Hereford, a new hamlet was proposed, enclosing a green on which there was a cider press disguised as a 'rude primitive temple'. In the event, this rural conceit, on Repton's advice, was abandoned, as the resulting dislocation of the labouring community of Stoke would be politically insensitive, in the context of the French Revolution and the 'Jacobin stirs' occurring elsewhere in Herefordshire and Wales.

Remarkably, some cottages were constructed elsewhere on the estate, designed by the recently bankrupted Welsh architect, John Nash, who was also employed to refurbish the damaged houses. In Nash, Repton found a new partner who understood the picturesque - having been employed by Uvedale Price on his summer retreat, the Castle House at Aberystwyth - and a fruitful association developed, which lasted until 1800 when Nash charmed the Prince Regent and subsequently cut Repton out of the contract for the Brighton Pavilion and its pleasure gardens.

However, the 'gentlemen professors...of correct taste' - Price and Knight - were by no means impressed by Repton's recent work in Herefordshire. His espousal of 'belts and (c)lumps' and the application of Brownian principles to their native landscape, at Belmont, The Weir, Garnons and now Stoke Edith - as well as perhaps 50 other sites in southern England - convinced them that it was time Repton was stopped. In 1794 they declared war in print.

Part two of David Whitehead's account will appear shortly.

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