Humphry Repton

Humphry Repton

Humphry Repton (1752 – 1818) was the leading landscape gardener of his day, a consummate salesman who presented clients with exquisitely illustrated before-and-after drawings of his proposed improvements, bound in red Morocco leather.

Repton worked with the 3rd Duke of Portland for over twenty years and produced three Red Books for Welbeck. The proposals Repton made for Welbeck were among his first large-scale projects, and they helped to establish his reputation.

His celebrated Red Books evocative illustrations proposed his improvements to clients – and were one of the elements of his success. Within his books, he often used clever overlay flaps to show before-and-after views from the same point.

We have digitised one of the Welbeck Red Books, Plans, Hints and Views for the Improvement of Welbeck, 1790. Read it here.

The 3rd Duke of Portland’s landscape

William Henry Cavendish-Bentinck, 3rd Duke of Portland (1738-1809) was Prime Minister twice, with an extraordinary 24 years between his terms in office. He married Lady Dorothy Cavendish, from Chatsworth, and is the great-great-great-great grandfather of King Charles III.

Historian Michael Hall tells us about the intense interest that the Duke took in the setting of his house:

“This was not just a matter of aesthetics. His changes carried self-conscious moral implications as an embodiment of the aristocracy’s paternalistic management of the country. For example, in the mid-1770s, working with his head gardener, William Speechly, he laid out a scenic carriage drive along the borders of the lake at Welbeck. This wasn’t simply for the pleasure of the Duke and his family: it provided work for labourers and produced ‘bog earth’ for farmers to use as fertiliser.

“The closeness of the Duke’s collaboration with his estate staff is commemorated by an unusual commission given to Joshua Reynolds, a portrait of John Cleaver (d. 1779), who was the agent at Welbeck for six years. There was, however, something slightly self-satisfied about the way that the Duke saw his virtues reflected in the landscape. At Bulstrode, he employed over fifty children to work in the park (they had specially made small-scale wheelbarrows and spades): ‘Sometimes he would order their dinner bell to ring half an hour before the usual time, for the sake of witnessing the joy which such an unexpected event produced on their happy faces.’

“The Duke made substantial alterations to Welbeck in 1763 when he demolished the existing service range, which had formed part of the medieval cloister, and replaced it with a new kitchen, scullery and other offices designed by the architect John Carr. However, although Carr returned in 1774–7 to remodel the main reception rooms, the Duke’s principal interest was always the park, and his serious-minded approach to estate improvement helps to explain why his collaboration with the celebrated landscape designer Humphry Repton (1752–1818) was so fruitful.

“The proposals Repton made for Welbeck and Bulstrode from 1789 onwards were among his first large-scale projects, and they helped to establish his reputation. He formed an unusually long-lasting alliance with the Duke, for whom he produced no fewer than three of his celebrated Red Books (the most he made for a single property), depicting suggested improvements to the house and park. He looked back on his work with the Duke with special affection, praising ‘the varied knowledge I acquired from his taste and experience’.

“A major change initiated on Repton’s advice was designed to disguise the fact that Welbeck lay in a low hollow. A ridge was excavated in front of it and the earth used to bury the basement storey, so giving the impression that the house stood on a low rise. Even that did not satisfy Repton, who in 1803 produced proposals for an entirely new house, a large, square (and rather boring) classical building on the far side of the lake. The Duke was unlikely to have been attracted by such an extravagant idea, even if he could have afforded it, and nothing was done.”

Excerpt from Treasures of the Portland Collection.

Michael Hall

Michael Hall

Michael Hall is the editor of the art-history periodical The Burlington Magazine. He was formerly the editor of Apollo and the architectural editor and deputy editor of Country Life.

His book, Treasures of the Portland Collection, was written to accompany the opening of the Harley Foundation’s new museum in 2016.