Humphry Repton, the great English landscape designer of the 18th century, was born in Bury St Edmunds on 21st April 1752. Determined to succeed Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown, he transformed many landscapes in East Anglia and beyond, creating unique landscapes.
Son of an excise collector, he spent the first ten years of his life in the town before his father set up a transport business in Norwich. Once schooling had been completed, Humphry was destined for the life of a merchant. Preferring botany, entomology and gardening, he did not display a natural aptitude for business. Instead he cultivated skills as a sketcher and gardener. He was apprenticed to a textile merchant, and on his marriage, he set up in business for himself. Unsuccessful, upon the death of his parents in 1778, with a modest legacy he moved to a small country estate near Aylsham in Norfolk. He was encouraged to study botany and gardening and at the age of 36, he decided to take up the profession of ‘landscape gardener’ (a term he created).
Aiming to fill the void left by the death of Capability Brown, he began to advertise his services to upper class contacts. His first paid commission was Catton Park, north of Norwich. He became an instant success, in part due to his talent, but also in the way he presented to his clients. He produced ‘Red Books’ which outlined his plans in text and watercolour images – with a unique ‘before’ and ‘after’ overlaying system. By turning back the flap on each image, his clients could see the proposed improvements.
The economic climate did not provide the level of opportunity enjoyed by Brown. Rather than major estate landscaping projects, clients commissioned terraces or gardens near the house. Whilst Brown became wealthy, Repton only made a comfortable living. Despite working for equally important clients, Repton was working on a smaller scale, often refining rather than laying out entire grounds or completing entire landscaping projects on smaller estates.
However, Repton worked at many of the great houses including Tatton Park and Woburn Abbey, and in East Anglia at Holkham Hall, Wimpole Hall and Sheringham Park. His work sowed the seeds of the more intricate and eclectic styles of the 19th century. He published three major works, and together with his Red Books, these books are an important part of his legacy to landscape design today.
In 1811 Repton suffered a serious carriage accident which often left him needing to use a wheelchair. He died in 1818 and is buried in Alysham.
Many of Repton’s grounds survive at least in part as he laid them out. Two Repton parks close to Bury St Edmunds, Livermere and Culford, both from 1790s, have experienced different fortunes. Culford survives; Livermere Park, on the other hand, disappeared virtually without trace. The park is now farmland and the hall pulled down in 1923.
Jules Armour, Bury St Edmunds Tour Guides