This year marked the bicentennial of his death and as well as a series of events held to celebrate his genius, 2018 ends with an intriguing item offered in the December 19 book sale at the Tennants auction house in Leyburn , North Yorkshire, demonstrating its entrepreneurial spirit.
Repton (1752-1818), who is considered the successor to the great garden designer ‘Capability’ Brown, came up with the idea of producing before and after scenes for potential clients to show how his designs would appear.
In those pre-Instagram and smartphone days, Repton’s solution was to illustrate the current view in watercolor involving a flap, which could be lifted to reveal the proposed design – an easy way to show a customer the comparisons of their houses.
His Red Books (so named by Repton because of the distinctive red leather bindings he preferred) were the most famous examples of this, but the upcoming lot at Tennants, estimated between £ 1,500 and £ 2,000, is another fascinating case. It’s a copy of Repton Designs for Brighton Pavilion. It was commissioned by the future George IV but the prince ran out of money and the project was partially carried out by John Nash in 1814.
Paint it red
Over a 30-year career, Repton designed over 400 English landscapes and gardens, many of which survive today and most of which came with one of those famous red books.
Risen Repton, an exhibition of red books, drawings and watercolors by him, is one of the bicentennial events and runs until 3 February at the Garden Museum in London. Twenty four The red books are on display. Very few remain, and this exhibition brings together the largest number of Red Books in one place in 25 years.
Repton was happy to present himself as Brown’s “heir” and handed out business cards promoting his services as a “landscaper” (the first to “brand” himself as such). His style differed from Capability Brown by including more ornamental elements, trying to achieve a clearer separation between the agricultural landscape and the house by an ornamental zone in between.
According to the Garden Museum: “As the pages turn, as trees rise or are felled, a stream becomes a lake, a messy farm becomes a distinguished park, or, as in the Sundridge Park Red Book, a house is suddenly replaced by another larger mansion.
“Repton interspersed the watercolors with notes, often in a conversational style, recalling walks with the owner of the house when he visited. Compliments are followed by criticism, very often from the designer who predated Repton.”
Woburn Abbey in Bedfordshire is one of the best surviving examples of his work.
Flourishing auction results
When the Red Books were auctioned, the resulting prices were impressive. The Red Book for Sunning Hill, Berkshire, ‘the Seat of Ia [James] Sibbald Esq ‘, 1790, doubled the highest estimate at Christie’s in New York in May 2012, selling for $ 104,500 all-in (then around £ 67,900).
In the same sale, the red book for ‘Moregenhanger in Bedfordshire a Seat of Godfrey Thornton Esq’, 1792, cost $ 116,500 (around £ 75,600).
As with this bundle of Tennants, less expensive ways to collect Repton are available, however. Another recent example was his Observations on the theory and practice of landscape gardening, 1803, offered in the Oxford Mallams auction house in September 2017. Estimated between £ 500 and £ 800, it sold for a hammer price of £ 3,100.