Book review: On the Spot: The Yorkshire Red Books of Humphry Repton Landscape Gardener
Authors: Patrick Eyres and Karen Lynch. Published by New Arcadian Press. ISBN 978-1-5262-0737-1. £25.
Review by A. Pugh-Thomas
Humphry Repton had nine Yorkshire commissions over a twenty-year period from 1790 to 1810, his main clients being member of the Portland Whig circle starting with Earl Fitzwilliam at Wentworth Woodhouse 1790,1791 and 1794. Later he advised the newly created Tory peer, Baron Harewood at Harewood House and commercial merchants centred on Leeds.
Six Red Books survive for those commissions: some commissions, such as for Harewood, were largely unrealised. At some of the sites where Repton’s plans were implemented only vestiges remain amongst hotels and golf courses but at Mulgrave Castle much remains and at Wentworth Woodhouse his plans were largely implemented and still survive.
The particular value of this publication is that the authors not only reproduce many of Repton’s watercolours for proposed garden buildings and alterations to landscapes and also the 'before and after' pictures in the surviving Yorkshire volumes but also set out in full the narratives for each of the surviving volumes. After describing and illustrating each of the Books, Patrick Eyres then contributes a long-ish essay on Repton’s life, his relations with the Whig grandees who were his favoured clients, the impact of the Napoleonic war and of taxation on his practice; his work for wealthy Leeds merchants; his reaction to the attacks on his practice by Payne Knight and Gilpin; and finally on the aftermath – his fame nurtured by Loudon in the 19th century (although he was not always complimentary-asserting that Lord Harwood’s “good taste” “triumphed” over Repton’s ideas) and Christopher Hussey in Country Life in the 20th century and its impact, surprisingly, on the designs of Iain Hamilton Finlay at Little Sparta.
The description of the various sites where Repton worked includes interesting comments on those he met – such as William Wilberforce and also the celebrated water colour painter Girtin at Harewood. The authors also describe the implementation of some of Repton’s schemes – at Langold, on the border of South Yorkshire and Nottinghamshire, from late 1809 to the spring of 1810 over 16,500 trees were planted as well as shrubs, myrtles, briars and rhododendrons. At Armley House he was unimpressed by the family’s Villa and devoted a large part of his recommendations to hints on improving the interior and exterior in, as the editors indicate, “a considerably more verbose manner than in his other Red Books for Yorkshire sites”.
This is a most informative and enjoyable volume written by two expert authors: Dr Patrick Eyres who has published widely not only in the New Arcadian Journal but elsewhere and is editor of Wentworth Castle and Georgian Political Gardening (2012) and co-editor of Sculpture and the Garden (2006), and Diplomats, Goldsmiths and Baroque Court Culture (2014) and Karen Lynch, formerly the researcher at Harewood House who has published papers in Garden History on the landscape at Bretton Hall in West Yorkshire and follies on the shore of Lake Windermere and was curator of the exhibition “Noble Prospects: Capability Brown and the Yorkshire Landscape” at Harrogate in 2016.