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Humphry Repton in Kent: explore 4 of his stunning gardens

PUBLISHED: 11:02 18 February 2019

Montreal from the south, 1777, taken from a painting by Paul Sandby

Montreal from the south, 1777, taken from a painting by Paul Sandby

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Kent Gardens Trust reveals new discoveries about landscape gardener Humphry Repton's influence in Kent in his bicentenary year

Most people have heard of Capability Brown, the creator of the English Landscape Garden, but Humphry Repton (1752-1818) is hardly known.

This is surprising, because in his day he was the most notable and influential designer of gardens, mentioned by Jane Austen in Mansfield Park, and his theories still resonate today.

Although Repton, like Brown, created parks for the landed aristocracy, he also designed gardens for the growing number of professional classes who wished their elegant villas to be enhanced by an equally fashionable entrance, carriageway, park and pleasure ground.

Cobham Hall, Hasted, 1778 (photo: Medway Archives Centre)Cobham Hall, Hasted, 1778 (photo: Medway Archives Centre)

He designed walks and terraces around the house where ladies could walk and enjoy colour and scent without dirtying their feet; he created rose gardens with arbours, pergolas and formal pools and fountains.

He introduced pleasure gardens with winding walks through lawns planted with exotic shrubs and trees; he was adept at screening out unattractive features in the neighbouring landscape and creating the illusion of a more expansive estate than was actually the case.

Repton was a practical man who saw house and garden as a single entity to be enjoyed and lived in. The views from the interior of the house were as important to him as the distant prospect of the house.

This approach, plus his more decorative style of design, have much in common with contemporary garden design and the theories set out in his writings are still relevant now.

Cobham Hall after Repton, taken from the North Pleasure Ground (photo: private collection)Cobham Hall after Repton, taken from the North Pleasure Ground (photo: private collection)

Repton was a talented artist and would write up his proposals to his clients in a book illustrated with coloured drawings showing the grounds as they were, with a flap that when lifted up would reveal his vision for their improvement.

These books were most often bound in red Morocco leather and became known as Repton’s Red Books. About 100 of these exquisite works survive, mostly in museums and many in the USA.

Repton advised on five sites which are within the present county boundary and Kent Gardens Trust has now published a book, Humphry Repton in Kent, to mark the bi-centenary of his death. These sites illustrate his mature style well.

Vintners from Repton's Red Book (photo: Yale Center for British Art)Vintners from Repton's Red Book (photo: Yale Center for British Art)

Cobham Hall

The first and most important of Repton’s commissions in Kent was Cobham Hall for Lord Darnley, where he was involved for 25 years from 1790 until his death.

He later recalled his work there with some pride: “The house is no longer a huge pile standing naked in a vast grazing ground... Its walls are enriched with roses and jasmines, its apartments are perfumed with odours from flowers surrounding it on every side and the animals which enliven the landscape are not admitted as an annoyance, while the views of the park are improved by the rich foreground, over which they are seen from the terraces in the garden. ... all around is neatness, elegance and comfort.”

The gardens have been restored recently and much of Repton’s work can still be seen.

Repton's vision of the completed Bayham Abbey (photo: The Trustees of the 5th Marquis Camden Will Trust)Repton's vision of the completed Bayham Abbey (photo: The Trustees of the 5th Marquis Camden Will Trust)

Vinters Park

In 1797 Repton was commissioned by the paper magnate James Whatman to recommend improvements to the grounds of Vinters Park, near Maidstone.

His report includes several improvements to the entrance drive to provide glimpses of the house; converting ploughed land into parkland as being ‘more in harmony with the residence of elegance and comfort.’

Repton's proposal for the pleasure gardens at Montreal and the creation of a basse cour to the south. Note direction of the north (photo: Library and Archives Canada)Repton's proposal for the pleasure gardens at Montreal and the creation of a basse cour to the south. Note direction of the north (photo: Library and Archives Canada)

Ponds would be created in the valley to provide a ‘glitter of water from the house’ and the valley would be ‘embellished in picturesque fashion with a covered seat thatched like a Doric portico or a Swiss cottage.’

James Whatman died in 1798 but Repton’s proposals for new carriageways were carried out 30 to 40 years later and the views from the house over the park were eventually improved just as he had suggested.

Vinters had a fine park and garden until the house was demolished in the 1960s.

It is now managed by the Vinters Park Wildlife Trust and a few remnants of the designed landscape are still just discernible under a covering of scrub and undergrowth.

Bayham Abbey

The commission from Earl Camden in 1806 to improve his estate at Bayham Abbey involved designing a new house. The site included the romantic ruins of the medieval abbey in a broad valley above the River Teise.

Repton proposed forming a lake from the river and suggesting that it was larger than it actually was by the careful positioning of trees. He identified a site for the new house on the north bank with picturesque views of the ruined abbey across the water.

The lake was created by 1814 but the new house would not be built until 1870. The spot then chosen was close to that recommended by Repton.

The abbey ruins are now cared for by English Heritage and are open to the public, but the house and grounds are in private ownership. Jane Austen’s cousin Francis Austen commissioned Repton to advise on the park and gardens of Kippington House near Sevenoaks and a short report on his proposals survives, dated 28 July 1808.

It includes suggestions for a new carriageway to the house, which seems to have been acted upon, enhancing views of the church from the grounds, improving the entrances to allow travellers on the main road to see a delightful glade within the estate, adding a portico and planting roses around the house.

After the arrival of the railway in 1865 and the expansion of Sevenoaks, the estate was sold for housing. Kippington House survives and has been converted into flats.

Montreal

The last of Repton’s key commissions in Kent was in 1812 for Lord Amherst for his estate, Montreal in Sevenoaks. Lord Amherst had been responsible for the capture of Montreal in Canada from the French in 1760.

Repton recommended improving the views from the house of the pleasure grounds, lake and the obelisk erected by the first Lord Amherst to commemorate the British victories in the Seven Years War. A terrace and a broad level gravel walk into the garden was also proposed.

The Amhersts were abroad until 1828 and on their return they commenced work on the house and garden. A remarkable collection of family letters and diaries have survived, recording the progress of the work and the close interest members of the family took in it.

Repton’s proposals were not carried out exactly, but undoubtedly influenced the development of the grounds.

The estate was sold for housing in the 1930s and the house was then demolished.

Kent Gardens Trust’s book: Humphry Repton in Kent costs £10 (£8 to Trust members) and can be obtained through the Trust website: www.kentgardenstrust.org.uk

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