Repton’s Red Books

This year marks the bicentenary of Humphry  (notably always spelt without an ‘e’) Repton’s death in 1818. Amongst the series of events, talks, walks and celebrations taking place (many organised by, or in conjunction with, The Gardens Trust) is the exhibition Repton Revealed at the Garden Museum. This runs until the 3rd of February and has been sponsored by City and Country, a developer of heritage properties, who currently own the Mansion at Sundridge Park where they are restoring part of the Repton Garden.  They have lent the original Red Book, which they own, for the property as part of their contribution.

The exhibition is a must for garden historians, Repton specialists and the Friends of the Museum. The more the viewer already knows the more valuable it is. It is built up around a core of 24 of Repton’s ‘Red Books’, those beautifully produced, and usually red leather bound, marketing presentations with which he wooed potential clients. Since only around 200 are estimated to survive the presence there of so many is a tribute to the powers of persuasion of Christopher Woodward, the Museum’s Director, his Trustees and staff and the exhibition curator, Professor Stephen Daniels. The books are supplemented by some of Repton’s watercolours, drawings and informative text panels as well as, crucially, by a digital presentation of the Red Book for Armley, a Repton garden near Leeds.

Repton’s marketing technique was as simple as it was effective. After a visit to the potential client’s property, where the socially affable and sophisticated Repton unleashed all his charm, a Red Book would be produced in the same way as a consultancy client would now receive a follow up Power Point presentation. Here a structured series of past and proposed views of the client’s property would be revealed as the owner turned the pages and lifted the flaps on each page of beautiful watercolour. As the Museums’s own publicity states Clients would open the book to see Repton’s delicate watercolours of their garden as it currently appeared, and then would then lift a flap, revealing Repton’s new design for their garden as it could be (provided they paid Repton handsomely to make the design a reality!). As pages are turned, trees rise or are felled, a stream becomes a lake, an untidy farm becomes a genteel park, or, as is the case in the Sundridge Park Red Book, a house is suddenly replaced with another, grander manor.  The accompanying text, now somewhat flowery and verbose to modern eyes, would recall the pleasure of Repton’s visit, the natural beauty and potential of the site and the poise and standing of the owner, that could only be enhanced by implementing the proposed improvements.

On account of the fragility of the main exhibits it is a given that low light levels are essential and there is obviously no possibility of actually turning the pages of any Red Book. Herein lies the only problem with this exhibition. For all its strengths it can offer only limited engagement with the essentially dynamic process of viewing a Red Book as a client once might.

Christopher Woodward has pointed out that Repton was a man obsessed with change and speed, whose ideal viewpoint would have been taken from a fast moving travelling phaeton, as frame gave way to frame. He would, he claims with justification have become a filmmaker if born in the last century. It’s equally possible that he would have been a high powered salesman, perhaps of some exotic commodity, supporting his pitches to Ultra High Net Worth Individuals with sophisticated Power Point presentations and embedded video!

The organisers are well aware of this problem and to overcome it have commissioned an 8 minute video and voice over based on Repton’s designs for Armley, a villa then on the outskirts of Leeds. The text of the original has had to be adapted for modern ears but the process of seeing the illustrations appear successively on screen is highly effective and no-one should leave the exhibition without sitting down and watching it. Had more funds been available perhaps the other books could have received the same treatment and been made available to visitors by a link to their phones.This should not detract from the success of the exhibition or deter visitors from seeing it, but it is only right to point out that the problem exists.

An interesting and surprisingly modern sidelight of Repton’s life is his very personal concern for overcoming disability. After a carriage accident which severely damaged his back and left him suffering continual pain,he focused much of his energy on the design of suitable vehicles to get about with limited mobility and planned routes for his clients’ estates that would suit disabled and able bodied visitors alike. The exhibition is a worthy tribute to a man in many ways ahead of his time as well as being a significant input into garden history and a great credit to the Museum. See it if you can.

Chris

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