Repton's Red Book for Sunderidge Park

Humphry Repton (1752-1818) set out to be the leading landscape gardener of his day and famously created Red Books for his clients, including this book for Sunderidge Park.

Portrait of Humphry Repton (1803) by W. Holl and S ShelleyGarden Museum

Humphry Repton found his vocation as a landscape gardener relatively late in life. He was born in Suffolk and spent his first three decades as a textile merchant, country squire, private secretary, art critic and even worked to reform the mail-coach system. These careers brought him little success and by 1788 he and his family were in the shadow of the ‘dread of poverty’.

Following the death of Capability Brown in 1783 the world of gardening was in need of a new leading figure. Humphry Repton embraced this opportunity and within a year of establishing his practice he was a success and living 'in a state of ease and comparative affluence'.

Flower Garden at Valleyfield, Fife, designed by Humphry Repton (1803) by Humphry ReptonGarden Museum

By 1805 Humphry Repton had a healthy list of clients including aristocrats, country squires and merchants who would pay five guineas a day, plus expenses, for his vision. The delicate watercolours and copperplate written advice in his Red Books came at an additional cost.

Humphry Repton's Red Book for 'Sunderidge', Bromley (1793) by Humphry ReptonGarden Museum

Red Books were named after the colour of their leather binding, although the first red books were not always red. The book for Sunderidge was later rebound in blue.

Repton’s Red Books were a unique marketing tool. Compiled after he had visited a client, walking their grounds and discussing the landscape’s potential, the books are filled with watercolours showing ‘before’ and ‘after’ scenes. Lifting a paper flap, or reveal, shows a view transformed. Repton described his Red Books as a ‘means of making my ideas equally visible, or intelligible to others’.

Drawing from Repton's Red Book for 'Sunderidge', Bromley (1793) by Humphry ReptonGarden Museum

Repton had a lifelong love of performance. The ‘slides’ and ‘reveals’ of a Repton Red Book were created to entertain and delight his clients, as well as sell his services. Perhaps some inspiration came from the peep show boxes where a paying audience would peer into a wooden cabinet to see the magical movement of miniature cut-out scenes manipulated by strings.

This Red Book opens with an impressive double page drawing showing a view of Sunderidge before Repton's suggested improvements.

Drawing from Repton's Red Book for 'Sunderidge', Bromley, South-east London (1793) by Humphry ReptonGarden Museum

The same view of Sunderidge after Repton's suggested improvements.

Title page for Humphry Repton's Red Book for Sunderidge, Bromley (1793) by Humphry ReptonGarden Museum

In 1793 Geogre Edward Lind asked for Repton's advice after buying Sundridge Park in Bromley. Repton created the Red Book for the site the same year.

Introduction from Repton's Red Book for Sunderidge, Bromley, London (1793) by Humphry ReptonGarden Museum

Around 1814 he wrote in a draft for a memoir:

‘In every place in which I was consulted, I found that I was gifted with the peculiar facility of seeing almost immediately the way in which it might be improved. . .’

Geogre Edward Lind had originally only asked Repton for advice on which trees should be felled. However the advice went beyond that, recommending other ways the site could be improved to Repton's picturesque ideal.

This Red Book persuaded Lind not just to have the Estate re-designed by Repton but to build a new house to the design of John Nash, Repton’s business partner at the time. Their work together was innovative and resulted in houses being re-positioned with in the contours of the landscape to enchant the view.

Writing on 'Character and Situation', Repton's Red Book for Sunderidge, Bromley (1793) by Humphry ReptonGarden Museum

The 18th century picturesque ideal of a landscape garden is as a succession of views which flow into one another as the viewer moves through the scene. Views from and to the house were important, therefore Repton began by considering the character and situation of the house.

Bird-Eye View Drawing, Repton's Red Book for Sundridge Park, Bromley (1793) by Humphry ReptonGarden Museum

A birds eye view of the site with the kitchen garden, woodlands and approach to the current house marked. The Repton marks two pionts, A and B, that he goes on to suggest would be the best place for a new house.

Writing on 'The House', Repton's Red Book for Sunderidge, Bromley, London (1793) by Humphry ReptonGarden Museum

Here Repton writes about the current house and expresses that the view from here is difficult to improve as the ground slopes towards the house 'which is even worse than a dead flat'. He is gently persuading Lind to erect a new house.

Writing on 'The Woods' from Repton's Red Book for Sunderidge (1793) by Humphry ReptonGarden Museum

Repton distinguishes the landscape of a farmer and gentleman by whether it is priortised by beauty or profit. He points out that the two are often 'incompatible' objectives.

When looking at the view of the woods he suggests it be improved by removing a pale fence which he thinks takes the simplest line 'without any regard to the natural shape of the ground; it therefore destroys all the beauty of the hill and valley'. His following drawing shows its removal as well as the felling of trees in the valley which Repton criticises for flattening the view.

Wooded Landscape, Repton's Red Book for 'Sunderidge', Bromley, London (1793) by Humphry ReptonGarden Museum

A view of the woods before Repton's suggested improvements.

Drawing of Landscaping, Repton's Red Book for 'Sunderidge', Bromley, London, England (1793) by Humphry ReptonGarden Museum

A view of the woods after Repton's suggested improvements.

Writing on 'Wood Continued', Repton's Red Book for 'Sunderidge', Bromley, London (1793) by Humphry ReptonGarden Museum

Repton continues to comment on how the woods can be improved, reflecting on the removal of the fence and where, if one was necessary, a fence could be hidden.

Repton wrote in a sure manner but was not without his critics. In the 1790s, theorists on the picturesque, Uvedale Price and Richard Payne Knight, attacked Repton’s designs as commercial and vulgar. However, Repton rose above this criticism writing in his Red Book for Honing (1793): 'convenience ought to take the lead [ . . .] the picturesque effect is too dearly bought at the price of comfort'

Writing on 'The Farm', Repton's Red Book for 'Sunderidge', Bromley, London (1793) by Humphry ReptonGarden Museum

Repton again compares the 'incompatible' objectives of beauty and profit. Here he is advising on the land used for farming and writes: 'I am a strenuous advocate for keeping distinct the opposite ideas of Farm and Park'

Writing on 'The Old House' from Repton's Red Book for Sunderidge, Bromley, London (1793) by Humphry ReptonGarden Museum

Repton suggests improvements to the existing house such as covering the brick with a stone coloured wash. This improvement is shown in the following drawing.

Drawing from Repton's Red Book for 'Sunderidge' in Bromley, Kent (1793) by Humphry ReptonGarden Museum

A view of the house before Repton's suggested improvements.

'Sunderidge', Bromley from Humphry Repton's Red Book (1793) by Humphry ReptonGarden Museum

A view of the house after Repton's suggested improvements.

Writing on 'The New Site' from Repton's Red Book, Sundridge Park, Bromley, London (1793) by Humphry ReptonGarden Museum

Here Repton suggests the possible sites for a new house, marked A and B on the birds eye view of the park. He considers valley views from the house, how to hide the boundary of the park and the backdrop behind the house.

Writing on 'The Approach' from Repton's Red Book for 'Sunderidge', Bromely (1793) by Humphry ReptonGarden Museum

Much of Humphry Repton’s life was spent on the road. As a young textile merchant he had travelled in Europe and as a landscape gardener he spent weeks visiting clients. Despite the huge improvements to roads and transport technology in the late-eighteenth century, Repton spent many days working in carriage cabs.

Repton understood the importance of travel in polite Georgian society as the new middle-class made journeys for business or for pleasure to new tourist destinations. His designs did not hide roads, instead they were incorporated into the improved landscape and many Red Books include careful advice on ‘The Approach’.

In the case of Sunderidge, he advised that some trees be taken down in order to open the lawn from the approach for a favourable view. This is illustrated in the following drawing.

Drawing from Humphry Repton's Red Book for 'Sunderidge' in Bromley (1793) by Humphry ReptonGarden Museum

A view from the approach before Repton's suggested improvements.

Drawing from Repton's Red Book for 'Sunderidge', Bromley (1793) by Humphry ReptonGarden Museum

A view from the approach after Repton's suggested improvements.

Repton Revealed with Jeremy Irons (2018) by The Garden Museum and A Third Channel ProductionGarden Museum

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The Garden Museum would like to thank City and Country for the loan of this object and permission to use it.

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