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Wednesday Book: The art of the estate

"REPTON WAS a coxcomb, but he had infinitely more genius than one half of his critics and detractors." In tossing off this qualified insult, or compliment, the Duke of Bedford seems to have caught an abiding characteristic of Humphry Repton and his career - his edgy lack of ease, his air of successful self-invention. Being a generation younger than "Capability" Brown, Repton did not have to invent the role of landscape gardener. But he did have to find his own way into it, via tenuous forays into the cloth trade, politics and transport, and setting up as a country gentleman. He was in his mid-thirties, with wife, children and money worries, by the time he decided to fill the gap left by Brown's death in 1783.

Stephen Daniels has not written a biography, but a study of how Repton's landscape gardening meshed with other physical and cultural developments of late-Georgian society. Thus he is sparing about Repton's background, more or less having him burst upon the scene a fully fledged gentleman expert, ready to market his "natural taste for improving the beauties of scenery". He does, however, say that Repton's best qualification for this bold move was his ability as a watercolourist, supported by his ambition.

Repton, despite writing in 1795 that his profession required not only the imagination of a painter but a "gardener's practical knowledge in planting, digging and moving earth", does not appear, from this account, to have started off with any of the latter. He left the contracting side to others, concentrating on its more gentlemanly aspects: the exploratory ramble with owners, congenial discussion, maybe an overnight stay, with a little music-making, followed by the drawing up of "before and after" illustrations and notes, all presented in a red leather book. He seems to have been at his benevolent best with clients not much grander than himself. Too grand, and he can sound as ingratiating as Jane Austen's Mr Collins, which may explain why the Duke of Bedford was not alone in calling him a coxcomb.

Daniels picks out five themes within which to examine Repton's work: the road, the county, the Picturesque, aristocratic patronage, and the edges of cities. Repton was energetic, undertaking hundreds of commissions in his 30-year career, and travelling tens of thousands of miles. He also sought to further his influence by recycling much of the content of his Red Books in his own theoretical publications.

Unsurprisingly, he regarded roads as an important and improving benefit to society, and was opposed to disguising them: "a gravel road when it gracefully follows the natural shapes of the ground is one of the most pleasing circumstances in a good landscape". Enclosing common land, blocking rights of way, re-routing roads out of the sight of grand houses, demolishing cottages - these were all part of creating the landscaped park. How much consequent harm was done to the poor, varied according to the attitude of the landowner. Repton appears to have gone along with it all readily enough, while maintaining a bias towards inclusiveness. He argued that people, roads, well-kept cottages and rural industry enhanced a scene, rather than detracting from its dignity.

But Daniels interestingly charts Repton's increasing disillusion with the way society was going. In an illustration to his last published work (1816), Repton contrasts the appearance of a country road 10 years before with the present. Where formerly big deciduous trees shaded the verge, and an old couple could take their ease on the common, overlooking the deer-filled park of an "ancient proprietor", now the new, rich owner has cut down all the timber, enclosed the common, removed the bench, put up a high fence with a warning about man-traps and, adding insult to injury, planted an upstart row of conifers.

Repton did not go looking for controversy; he would rather have pleased everyone - at least, everyone of his rank or above. But, as Daniels shows, the land, how it was used and regarded, was too important a focus of debate for the views of any one self-appointed authority to go unchallenged. A famous literary spat arose in 1794 about the merits of the Picturesque and the Beautiful, with Payne Knight and Uvedale Price ranged against Repton and Lancelot Brown.

It is hard, now, really to get a feel for the passions animating the argument, which already seemed absurd to Thomas Love Peacock by 1816. But the connection Daniels makes between it and widespread anxiety about revolution (with the Picturesque equating to the natural, free and therefore threatening; the Beautiful to the orderly and manageable) has the virtue of being straightforward.

"Straightforward" is not, however, a description to apply to the whole book. Its thematic structure entails a fair amount of tracing and retracing, with Repton getting ill and into his bath chair, then young again, several times over. This density does not make for a light read, but a rewarding, stimulating one, much enlivened by the generous illustrations.