Written towards the end of his life, Humphry Repton’s Fragments on the theory and practice of landscape gardening (1816) is a personal reflection on his career, recalling dozens of the garden projects that he undertook, both great and small, some completed and others unfinished.
Liberated, perhaps, by a sense that he had not much longer to live, Repton is candid about garden styles – and clients – providing us with some interesting insights:
‘Twenty years have now passed away and it is possible that life may be extended twenty years longer, but from my feelings more probable that it will not reach as many weeks; and therefore I may now perhaps be writing the last Fragment of my Labours. I have lived to see many of my plans beautifully realized, but many more, cruelly marred; sometimes by false economy; sometimes by injudicious extravagance. I have also lived to reach that period, when the improvement of Houses and Gardens is more delightful to me, than that of Parks or Forests, Landscapes or distant prospects.’
In the concluding chapter Repton returns to his cottage and garden at Hare Street, his home in Essex for thirty years and his retreat from ‘the pomp of palaces, the elegancies of fashion, or the allurements of dissipation’.
Two illustrations of his garden are provided – one as it was when he acquired the property and another after improvements. By extending the garden at the front of the house, he is able to frame the view of the village which he finds more pleasing than extensive parkland. Repton explains:
‘.. it stood originally within five yards of a broad part of the high road: this area was often covered with droves of cattle, of pigs, or geese. I obtained leave to remove the paling twenty yards farther from the windows; and by this Appropriation of twenty-five yards of Garden, I have obtained a frame to my Landscape; the frame is composed of flowering shrubs and evergreens; beyond which are seen the cheerful village, the high road, and that constant moving scene, which I would not exchange for any of the lonely parks, that I have improved for others;’
A closer inspection of the improved garden reveals the detail of the planting. Repton has retained two mature trees which he has set within a semi-circular lawn, helping to frame the outlook. The view of the butcher’s shop is obscured with an iron structure supporting climbing roses and a low rose hedge hides ‘the dirt of the road, without concealing the moving objects which animate the Landscape.’ The practical watering can and simple kitchen chair reinforce the humility of this country residence.
‘The most valuable lesson now left me to communicate is this: I am convinced that the delight I have always taken in Landscapes and Gardens, without any reference to their Quantity or Appropriation, or without caring whether they were Forests or Rosaries, or whether they were Palaces, Villas, or Cottages, while I had leave to admire their beauties, and even to direct their improvement has been the chief source of that large proportion of happiness which I have enjoyed through life,’
As we currently spend more time at home than usual – and in our gardens if we are fortunate enough to have them – Hare Street is a reminder of the importance of gardens as a refuge from the world outside whatever their size, and that constructing them is a source of great contentment in our lives.
Humphry Repton 1752 – 1818