Repton Humphry

Birth: 1752


Repton Humphry (1752-1818), landscape-gardener, son of John Repton, collector of excise, by Martha, daughter of John Fitch of Moor Hall, Suffolk, was born on a small paternal estate at Bury St. Edmunds on 2 May 1752. Both his parents died about 1776. His education began at Bury, and, on the removal of the family to Norwich about 1762, was continued at Norwich grammar school. Being intended for commercial life, he was taken in 1764 to Helvoetsluys to learn Dutch at a school in the small village of Workum, where he remained for a year. The next five months were passed in the family of Zachary Hope of Amsterdam, after which he spent two years in a school at Rotterdam. When nearly sixteen years old he returned to Norwich to be trained in the trade of calicoes and satins. He married, on 5 May 1773, Mary Clarke, and set up in Norwich as a general merchant, but soon failed, and withdrew to Sustead, near Aylsham in Norfolk, in which town lived his only sister, Dorothy, the wife of John Adey, a solicitor respected throughout the county (Windham, Diary, pp. 69, 295-6, 479). At Sustead he discharged the duties of a country gentleman, and under the encouragement of his friend and schoolfellow, Sir James Edward Smith, studied botany and gardening. A long letter from him to Smith is printed in the latter's 'Life and Correspondence,' ii. 189-191. Windham lived in the adjoining parish of Felbrigg, and from his library Repton obtained the loan of many botanical works. In 1783 he accompanied Windham, then appointed chief secretary to the lord lieutenant, to Ireland, and remained there as the secretary's deputy for a few months until the arrival of Thomas Pelham, afterwards second earl of Chichester He then withdrew to a small cottage, now called Repton Cottage, at Hare Street, Romford, Essex, which he much improved and made his residence for over forty years.

Not long after his return to England Repton made the acquaintance of John Palmer (1742-1818), the mail-coach projector, and embarked the balance of his capital in schemes for the improvement of the conveyance of letters. This attempt at improving his income was also attended by failure, and, being now driven to a fresh expedient for providing the means of living for his large family, he finally determined upon becoming a professional 'landscape-gardener.' Lancelot Brown (1715-1783) was at first his guide, and he defended Brown's views against the criticisms of Payne Knight and Uvedale Price, but Repton's opinions in the course of years were considerably modified. He gradually discarded the formalism of Brown, and adopted a more natural and varied style of ornamentation, which was described as combining 'artistical knowledge … with good taste and good sense.' His first great work in landscape was carried out about 1790 at Cobham in Kent, and he was afterwards employed by the chief noblemen of the day. He laid out Russell Square in Bloomsbury, London, and altered Kensington Gardens. While engaged on these works he made the acquaintance of many distinguished persons, including Burke, Wilberforce, and Pitt. On returning with his daughters from a ball on 29 Jan. 1811 he sustained, through an accident, an injury to his spine which incapacitated him from further work. He died at Hare Street on 24 March 1818; he was buried near the porch on the south side of Aylsham church, 'in a small enclosure planted like a garden,' under a plain tomb, with some lines of his own upon it (Notes and Queries, 7th ser. vi. 204). His widow was afterwards buried with him. They had sixteen children, seven of whom attained to mature years, and five were living at the date of his death. Two of the sons are noticed below.

Repton's works were: 1. 'Hundreds of North and South Erpingham,' a part of the 'History of Norfolk,' 1781, vol. iii. It also contained engravings of many of his drawings. 2. 'Variety, a Collection of Essays' [anon. By Repton and a few friends], 1788. 3. 'The Bee: a Critique on Paintings at Somerset House,' 1788. 4. 'The Bee; or a Companion to the Shakespeare Gallery,' 1789. 5. 'Letter to Uvedale Price,' 1794. 6. 'Sketches and Hints on Landscape Gardening,' 1794. This volume contained details, with numerous illustrations, of the different gardens and plantations which he had formed. He defends himself in chap. vii. and in an appendix from the criticisms of Knight and Price, and reprints his 'Letter to Uvedale Price.' Only 250 copies were printed, and the work has fetched more than four times the original price. 7. 'Observations on the Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening,' 1803. 8. 'Odd Whims and Miscellanies,' 1804, 2 vols. They were dedicated to Windham. Some of the essays in 'Variety' were reprinted in this collection, and in the second volume is a comedy of 'Odd Whims,' which was played at Ipswich. 9. 'An Inquiry into the Changes of Taste in Landscape Gardening, with some Observations on its Theory and Practice,' 1806; it also included his letter to Price. 10. 'Designs for the Pavilion at Brighton,' 1808. He was assisted in this by his sons, John Adey and George Stanley Repton. The plans were approved by the Prince of Wales, but, through want of funds, were not carried out. 11. 'On the Introduction of Indian Architecture and Gardening,' 1808. 12. 'Fragments on Landscape Gardening, with some Remarks on Grecian and Gothic Architecture,' 1816. In this work his son, J. A. Repton, gave him assistance. Repton contributed to the 'Transactions of the Linnean Society,' xi. 27, a paper 'On the supposed Effect of Ivy upon Trees.'

The appendix to John Claudius Loudon's 'Treatise on Country Residences,' 1806, contained some severe criticisms of Repton's designs and opinions; but in 1840 Loudon edited 'The Landscape Gardening and Landscape Architecture of the late Humphry Repton,' in which were reprinted Nos. 6, 7, 9, 10 and 12 of his works. It was illustrated by upwards of 250 engravings, and to it was prefixed a biographical notice by a member of the family. An exposition of his principles is in E. Petzold's 'Landschaftsgärtnerei,' issued at Leipzig in 1862. His manuscript collections included two volumes on his own career.

Repton's portrait was painted by S. Shelley, and engraved by W. Holl, 1803, and H. B. Hall, 1840. Another print of the same picture was engraved by Cooke, and appears in 'Essex, Suffolk, and Norfolk Characters' (1820, p. 57).

His eldest son, John Adey Repton (1775-1860), architect, born at Norwich on 29 March 1775, was educated at Aylsham grammar school and in a Norwich architect's office. From 1796 to 1800 he was assistant to John Nash of Carlton House, the great London architect, and he then joined his father at Hare Street, preparing architectural designs as adjuncts to landscape-gardening. In 1822 he went abroad, and was consulted professionally at Utrecht and at Frankfort-on-the-Oder. Subsequently he restored the Earl De la Warr's seat of Buckhurst, near Tunbridge Wells. Before 1835, when he sent in designs for the new houses of parliament, he had retired to Springfield, near Chelmsford; he gave his services as architect of Springfield church in 1843. He had been elected F.S.A. in 1803, and was a frequent contributor to 'Archæologia' (see vols. xv. xvi. xix. xxi. xxiv. and xxvii.). The last two of these communications treated of male and female headdress in England from 1500 to 1700. Another curious paper, 'on the beard and the mustachio, chiefly from the sixteenth to the eighteenth century,' which was read before the Society of Antiquaries, but not published, was printed at Repton's expense in 1839 (London, 8vo). In 1820 he displayed his antiquarian learning in the production of an 'olden-style romance,' entitled 'A trewe Hystorie of the Prince Radapanthus,' of which he printed eighty copies in a very small size. His name is not on the title-page, but may be spelt out from the initial letters on turning over the pages. Many articles by him appeared in the 'Gentleman's Magazine' from 1795 and in the British Archæological Association's 'Journal' (cf. xvii. 175-80). To John Britton's 'Cathedral Antiquities of Great Britain' (vol. ii.) he contributed, in 1816, a series of drawings of Norwich Cathedral. Repton, who was deaf from infancy, died unmarried at Springfield on 26 Nov. 1860 (notes supplied by G. C. Boase, esq.; Gent. Mag. 1861, i. 107-10; Roget, Old Water-colour Soc. 1891, i. 372).

The fourth son, George Stanley Repton (d. 1858), architect, was a pupil of Augustus Charles Pugin, and entered the office of John Nash, becoming one of his chief assistants. In conjunction with Nash, he altered and enlarged the opera house in the Haymarket, London, and designed the church of St. Philip, Regent Street. He also assisted his father and brother in the plans for the Pavilion at Brighton, and designed the library at Lord Darnley's seat of Cobham in Kent. Lady Elizabeth Scott, the eldest daughter of Lord Eldon, having made some unsuccessful attempts to obtain her father's consent to her marriage with Repton, escaped from the house on the morning of 27 Nov. 1817, and she and Repton were married the same day by license at St. George's, Hanover Square. Ferrey says that they had been 'privately married in March 1817' (Recollections of Pugin, pp. 4-5). The lady's father was exceedingly angry, but in 1820 a reconciliation took place, and under Lord Eldon's will her children shared in the family property equally with the issue of his other daughter. Repton did not long continue to follow his profession. He died on 29 June 1858. His widow died at Norfolk Street, Park Lane, London, on 16 April 1862, aged 78. Their only son, George William John Repton, sat in parliament for many years, first as member for St. Albans, and then for Warwick (Dict. of Architecture, vii. 22; Cunningham, London, ii. 199, iii. 80, 159; Roget, Old Water-Colour Soc. i. 372; Gent. Mag. 1817 ii. 554, 1862 i. 657; Twiss, Eldon, ii. 298; Surtees, Lords Stowell and Eldon, pp. 154-6).

[Gent. Mag. 1818, i. 372-3, 648, ii. 102; Allibone's Dict. of Engl. Literature; Ann. Biogr. for 1819, pp. 285-310; Dict. of Architecture, vii. 29; Cunningham's London (ed. Wheatley), ii. 329, iii. 191.]


William Prideaux Courtney, Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 48. pgs. 28-30.

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