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Did you know the 18th century landscape designer Humphry Repton turns up in Jane Austen’s novel, Mansfield Park?

No, I didn’t either: but a rather wonderful programme about him in the series ‘Escape to the Country’, about people who make the transition from city to countryside, had me scurrying to my dog-eared edition of Ms Austen’s book to check. It’s true – it’s the bit in chapter 6 where they’re talking about Sotherton Hall:

“It wants improvement, ma’am, beyond anything. I never saw a place that wanted so much improvement in my life; and it is so forlorn that I do not know what can be done with it.”

“No wonder that Mr. Rushworth should think so at present,” said Mrs. Grant to Mrs. Norris, with a smile; “but depend upon it, Sotherton will have every improvement in time which his heart can desire.”

“I must try to do something with it,” said Mr. Rushworth, “but I do not know what. I hope I shall have some good friend to help me.”

“Your best friend upon such an occasion,” said Miss Bertram calmly, “would be Mr. Repton, I imagine.”

“That is what I was thinking of. As he has done so well by Smith, I think I had better have him at once. His terms are five guineas a day.”

The first programme in the series was all about Mr Repton and his five-guinea-a-day designs. It’s presented by Laurence Llewellyn-Bowen, who I have until now chiefly associated with wafting around Chelsea in very large cuffs, but clearly I’ve been doing him an injustice.

Humphry Repton was the one responsible for places like Tatton Park, Longleat Park, Woburn and Kenwood House. He was the one after Capability: Llewelyn-Bowen describes him as the ‘feminine’ to Capability Brown’s ‘masculine’. (He also describes him, with I hope a deliberately tongue-in-cheek irony, as ‘a makeover artist’). And in a very real sense he took up the reins from Brown, beginning his landscaping career at a time when Capability Brown bestrode the landscape and indeed was largely shaping it.

Repton was all serpentine paths, terraces, balustrades and topiary, often plonking them right in the middle of Capability landscapes in an expensive 18th-century exercise in nose-thumbing. He didn’t do what Capability did and sweep away any villages and pesky peasants who got in the way of the grand vision: though what Repton did wasn’t much better, as he framed them as part of his presentation of a kind of bucolic Arcadia to be viewed from the terraces of the big house.

The main bit about Repton which stuck in my memory from garden history lessons is also mentioned here: he drew his gardens in beautifully-painted watercolours in red books which he then gave to his clients: the early precursor to a Vectorworks printout, perhaps.

You can listen to this edition of Escape to the Country until next Sunday by the miracle of Listen Again: it’s here.

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