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Humphry Repton: A Generous Deceit

This film was produced by Dorothea Gibbs and Third Channel with permission and support from Oak Springs Garden Foundation for the Garden Museum and it explores the work of garden designer Humphry Repton (1752-1818) and his ingenious red books.

Following the death of Capability Brown in 1783 the world of gardening was in need of a new leading figure. Humphry Repton embraced this opportunity and within a year of establishing his practice he was a success and living ‘in a state of ease and comparative affluence’. This was in large part thanks to his folios and Red Books; a unique marketing tool which he compiled after he had visited a client, walking their grounds and discussing the landscape’s potential, the watercolours showed ‘before’ and ‘after’ scenes. Lifting a paper flap, or reveal, shows a view transformed. Repton described his Red Books as a ‘means of making my ideas equally visible, or intelligible to others’.

The ‘slides’ and ‘reveals’ were created to entertain and delight his clients, as well as sell his services. Repton had a lifelong love of the performance, and would have seen magic lanterns shows and peep show boxes, known as ‘raree shows’. Some of the inspiration for his innovative red books may have come from the peep show boxes where a paying audience would peer into a wooden cabinet to see the magical movement of miniature cut-out scenes manipulated by strings.

The owner, of Armley House Benjamin Gott, commissioned Repton to make a survey of his estate and suggest improvements in 1810. Armley Mill, the most advanced woollen mill in the world in the early nineteenth century was owned and run by Gott and formed part of his estate. He requested that Repton suggest improvements to his home which would complement the mill. Repton praised the design of the mill which ‘can never fail to be an interesting object by daylight and at night presents a most splendid illumination by gaslight’. In the Armley red book Repton addressed the new aesthetic challenge of creating landscape design that married industry and urbanisation with the traditional agrarian Picturesque.