As part of a series of classes I will be giving on Regency life, using objects rather just pictures, I am reconstructing various objects that are either very rare or only survive in pictures. Amongst the rare, and fragile, items are the Red Books of Humphry Repton
Recently there have been a series of exhibitions commemorating the 300th anniversary of the birth of the great landscape gardener, Capability Brown. So naturally I want to talk about his successor, who was mentioned in Mansfield Park.
“Your best friend upon such an occasion,” said Miss Bertram calmly, “would be Mr. Repton, I imagine.”
“That is what I was thinking of.” said Mr. Rushworth. “As he has done so well by Smith, I think I had better have him at once. His terms are five guineas a day.”
If Mr Rushworth had employed Humphry Repton, instead of having to spend his money divorcing his newly married wife, who had run off with Henry Crawford, there would have been a Red Book produced for Sotherton.
The Red Books, so called from the colour of the leather in which they were bound, were Repton’s innovative method of attracting clients. As well as plans and descriptions of what he proposed doing to the estate, there were before and after paintings of what the view looked like now, and what it would look like when Repton’s works were carried out. Much of this had been done before, but what made Humphry Repton’s pictures remarkable was that before and after were to be found on the same illustration. You first saw the landscape as is at present, then you raised a paper flap and the view turned into what it would be.
It must be said, however, that Humphry Repton had a major character flaw, he was a dreadful snob, always sucking up to his wealthy or titled clients, he was referred to as oleaginous (oily), and was more than happy to approve of his clients more morally doubtful schemes, such as this for enclosing a common and turning it into the park associated with a fashionable villa.
Which reminds me of the famous verse;
The law is hard on man or woman
Who steals the goose from off the common
But lets the greater villain loose
Who steals the common from the goose
To create a facsimile of a Red Book illustration I first downloaded high resolution scans from the websites listed below. I decided to take the pictures showing how he improved his own house. I printed both the before and after views at exactly the same size, on heavy cartridge paper.
Then I cut out the tab and frame of from the ‘before’ view, this was then pasted over the ‘after view.
By lifting the flap you can see how he improved his garden, planting rose bushes, enclosing the village green and getting rid of the geese and inconvenient disabled poor people.
A great gardener but not a very nice man.
Repton’s books can be found on the University of Wisconsin website: