Over the past few months, you may have heard or read about the Repton Exhibition at Woburn Abbey. Maybe you have visited it yourself or you are planning to do so – if it’s within travelling distance that is! I’m in the fortunate position of living only 10 minutes away from Woburn, and I spent a day there recently in the company of my good friend and fellow landscape designer Andrew Wenham, and Andrew’s two brothers. The three siblings had decided to make a trip there as they grew up in Woburn (where their father was the vicar), immersed in a very English landscape. It was really a ‘day of two halves’, sandwiched nicely (ha!) with a pub lunch in the middle. We began by revisiting some of the Wenham brothers’ childhood haunts and spent the rest of the morning at the Repton Exhibition before visiting more childhood places in the afternoon. For me, the entire day reinforced a long-held view that the landscape in which you grow up (be it natural or built) has a huge influence on you.
I’m not sure I should be too specific about the morning’s escapades – bearing in mind that we were retracing the steps of three young boys let loose in the countryside. Let’s just say that it involved some wall-climbing, stinging nettles, scraped knees and at one point hiding from a Woburn gardener who may have felt the need to set us back on an official pathway (average age of our group was around 52!). The highlight though was to find our way to a ‘secret’ lakeside, with a view over to an island which the ‘boys’ had believed many years ago to be their own private retreat. The brothers were rather disappointed to find there is now a bridge to the island which curtailed the more exciting plan of making Andrew walk across fallen branches to get there! As children they were completely unaware that they were playing in a built ‘Repton’ landscape. The whole experience conjured up a great feeling of adventure, fun and a slight sense of risk.
I thoroughly enjoyed the Repton Exhibition itself, which is being held to celebrate his bicentenary. Generally recognised as the first person to use the title ‘landscape gardener’, Humphry Repton regarded himself as the rightful successor to Capability Brown. A prolific designer, he produced over 400 designs and schemes for gardens and – of these – he stated, “none were more fully realised than at Woburn Abbey”. I found it fascinating to view part of the Woburn Red Book, one of Repton’s largest works, containing detailed designs covering the approaches to Woburn Abbey, the lakes and plantings in the surrounding parkland and the formal Pleasure Grounds.
The present Duke and Duchess of Bedford have been restoring many of Repton’s designs over the last 14 years and following our exploration (after relatively recent discovery in their library) of Repton’s papers and design artefacts, we spent time outside enjoying the folly grotto, the Cone House, the menagerie and the beautiful Chinese-style pavilion. What stood out to me above everything else was Repton’s vision of the garden as an outdoor living space or room to be enjoyed. This is in contrast to the work of Capability Brown who tended to bring a very natural landscape right up to the house. Although it is over 200 years since Repton developed his designs, his work seems hugely relevant to our work today in landscape design, with his focus on blending a house into its landscape, on compartmentalisation of spaces around the house and then a gradual shift into more naturalistic styles further away from the buildings. I think this is a design principle that holds strong today. For this reason, I do think he has more influence on contemporary design than Capability Brown.
On a more tactical note, I was also interested in Repton’s emphasis on presentation – his Red Books are famous throughout the design profession and I could relate to the need to ‘wow’ clients at the same time as providing sufficient technical information to enable the work to be done. As well as an enthusiastic salesperson, Repton came across as having quite an ego, he certainly did not take well to having his schemes rejected – I can’t think how that applies to our profession today… (!). I was also struck by one of his quotes: ‘beware of planting trees, they merely serve to magnify the brevity of life’. Personally, I like to think I’m planting trees for posterity, but I did find Repton’s view refreshingly pragmatic! It was a memorable and very enjoyable day out – thank you Andrew, Patrick and John. I highly recommend a visit to the Repton Exhibition, which runs until October 28th this year. I also thoroughly recommend trying to recapture a little of that childhood playfulness that affected us all on the day – those three Wenham brothers were lucky to grow up in such proximity to a world-famous landscape and to be given the freedom to explore it. I know how grateful I am to have grown up in the Cotswolds, with grandparents living nearby in Laurie Lee’s Slad Valley. That landscape has stayed with me throughout my design life. In fact, I often find myself trying to recreate the atmosphere of my much-loved Grandparents’ orchard or the natural beauty of the wildflower planting in their meadow. As designers, the gardens we design become the settings for others to rest, play, grow, learn and live in. We are lucky to have the opportunity to enhance all those experiences. And look what well-rounded adults we grew into after our own childhoods were spent in the great outdoors! To find out more about our team at the Garden Company and the factors that influence our work, please click here.