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Posts Tagged ‘Humphry Repton’

This weekend as we celebrate Mother’s Day, my thoughts turn to Cassandra Austen,  wife of Rev. George Austen and mother of Jane Austen. Cassandra was related to the Leighs of Stoneleigh Abbey.  In 1806, the recently widowed Mrs. Austen visited Adlestrop Rectory in Gloucestershire with her two daughters, where they stayed with her cousins Rev. Thomas Leigh and his sister Elizabeth.  During their visit,  Rev. Thomas Leigh learned that the Hon. Mary Leigh of Stoneleigh Abbey had died and that he would inherit the great house, whose origins go back to 1154. The Austen women traveled with Rev. Leigh to Warwickshire. In the following letter, Mrs. Austen writes glowingly about their stay at the mansion:

“STONELEIGH ABBEY,
“August 13, 1806.

“MY DEAR MARY, – The very day after I wrote you my last letter, Mr. Hill wrote his intention of being at Adlestrop with Mrs. Hill on Monday, the 4th, and his wish that Mr. Leigh and family should return with him to Stoneleigh the following day, as there was much business for the executors awaiting them at the Abbey, and he was hurried for time. All this accordingly took place, and here we found ourselves on Tuesday (that is yesterday se’nnight) eating fish, venison, and all manner of good things, in a large and noble parlour, hung round with family portraits. The house is larger than I could have supposed. We cannot find our way about it – I mean the best part; as to the offices, which were the Abbey, Mr. Leigh almost despairs of ever finding his way about them. I have proposed his setting up direction posts at the angles. I had expected to find everything about the place very fine and all that, but I had no idea of its being so beautiful. I had pictured to myself long avenues, dark rookeries, and dismal yew trees, but here are no such dismal things. The Avon runs near the house, amidst green meadows, bounded by large and beautiful woods, full of delightful walks.

Stoneleigh Abbey, 1808, Humphrey Repton

“At nine in the morning we say our prayers in a handsome chapel, of which the pulpit, &c. &c., is now hung with black. Then follows breakfast, consisting of chocolate, coffee, and tea, plum cake, pound cake, hot rolls, cold rolls, bread and butter, and dry toast for me. The house steward, a fine, large, respectable-looking man, orders all these matters. Mr. Leigh and Mr. Hill are busy a great part of the morning. We walk a good deal, for the woods are impenetrable to the sun, even in the middle of an August day. I do not fail to spend some part of every day in the kitchen garden, where the quantity of small fruit exceeds anything you can form an idea of. This large family, with the assistance of a great many blackbirds and thrushes, cannot prevent it from rotting on the trees. The gardens contain four acres and a half. The ponds supply excellent fish, the park excellent venison; there is great quantity of rabbits, pigeons, and all sorts of poultry. There is a delightful dairy, where is made butter, good Warwickshire cheese and cream ditto. One manservant is called the baker, and does nothing but brew and bake. The number of casks in the strong-beer cellar is beyond imagination; those in the small-beer cellar bear no proportion, though, by the bye, the small beer might be called ale without misnomer. This is an odd sort of letter. I write just as things come into my head, a bit now and a bit then.

Stoneleigh Abbey, Gatehouse. 1807

“Now I wish to give you some idea of the inside of this vast house – first premising that there are forty-five windows in front, which is quite straight, with a flat roof, fifteen in a row. You go up a considerable flight of steps to the door, for some of the offices are underground, and enter a large hall. On the right hand is the dining-room and within that the breakfast-room, where we generally sit; and reason good, ’tis the only room besides the chapel, which looks towards the view. On the left hand of the hall is the best drawing-room and within a smaller one. These rooms are rather gloomy with brown wainscot and dark crimson furniture, so we never use them except to walk through to the old picture gallery. Behind the smaller drawing-room is the state-bedchamber – an alarming apartment, with its high, dark crimson velvet bed, just fit for an heroine. The old gallery opens into it. Behind the hall and parlours there is a passage all across the house, three staircases and two small sitting-rooms. There are twenty-six bedchambers in the new part of the house and a great many, some very good ones, in the old.

Bedroom, Stoneleigh Abbey

There is also another gallery, fitted up with modern prints on a buff paper, and a large billiard-room. Every part of the house and offices is kept so clean, that were you to cut your finger I do not think you could find a cobweb to wrap it up in. I need not have written this long letter, for I have a presentiment that if these good people live until next year you will see it all with your own eyes.

Arch, Stoneleigh Manor, Repton, 1807

“Our visit has been a most pleasant one. We all seem in good humour, disposed to be pleased and endeavouring to be agreeable, and I hope we succeed. Poor Lady Saye and Sele, to be sure, is rather tormenting, though sometimes amusing, and affords Jane many a good laugh, but she fatigues me sadly on the whole. To-morrow we depart. We have seen the remains of Kenilworth, which afforded us much entertainment, and I expect still more from the sight of Warwick Castle, which we are going to see to-day. The Hills are gone, and my cousin, George Cook, is come. A Mr. Holt Leigh was here yesterday and gave us all franks. He is member for, and lives at, Wigan in Lancashire, and is a great friend of young Mr. Leigh’s, and I believe a distant cousin. He is a single man on the wrong side of forty, chatty and well-bred and has a large estate. There are so many legacies to pay and so many demands that I do not think Mr. Leigh will find that he has more money than he knows what to do with this year, whatever he may do next. The funeral expenses, proving the will, and putting the servants in both houses in mourning must come to a considerable sum; there were eighteen men servants.” – Letter, Hill, Jane Austen: Her Homes and Her Friends

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Images: Plants info

Bedroom image: UK Student Life

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Wentworth Before, Humphry Repton

Wentworth Before, Humphry Repton

One of the biggest names in landscaping during the late 18th and early 19th centuries was Humpry Repton (1752-1818), a self-made man who transformed the formal landscapes around England’s great houses along more natural, fluid, and graceful lines. Repton, who saw the relationship between house and landscape as a picturesque whole, wrote:

Wentworth After, Humphry Repton

Wentworth After, Humphry Repton

“In landscape gardening everything may be called a deception by which we endeavour to make our works appear to be the product of nature only. We plant a hill to make it appear higher than it really is, we open the banks of a natural river to make it appear wider, but whatever we do we must ensure that our finished work will look natural or it would fail to be agreeable.” Agreeable meant adding cattle or deer as focal points, and architectural structures that drew the eye. At times, entire villages were transported away from the great house and mature trees were transplanted so that the bucolic vision of manse and land could remain unspoiled and natural.

Transplanting trees, 1794, Hayes

Transplanting trees, 1794, Hayes

In following his vision, Repton moved roads,  created ponds, planted copses,  and built architectural structures. An artist, he painted his vision of how the property would look in 50 years in a series of red books, many of which still survive. Stoneleigh Abbey,  the ancestral home of Jane Austen’s mother’s family, was one of Repton’s most important commissions. Those who are planning to visit Stoneleigh Abbey will have an opportunity to view Repton’s red book for the Leighs, which took him a year to create and which will be on exhibit through 2009. Repton’s famous red books  showed painted scenes of the landscape before and after his transformations. In Observations on the Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening, he wrote:

“The perfection of landscape gardening consists in the four following requisites. First, it must display the natural beauties and hide the defects of every situation. Secondly, it should give the appearance of extent and freedom by carefully disguising or hiding the boundary. Thirdly, it must studiously conceal every interference of art. However expensive by which the natural scenery is improved; making the whole appear the production of nature only; and fourthly, all objects of mere convenience or comfort, if incapable of being made ornamental, or of becoming proper parts of the general scenery, must be removed or concealed”.

In 1796, following his own advice, Repton painted two watercolours for Whiton, the seat of Samuel Prime, esq., as seen below – (Images from Plants and Gardens Portrayed.)

Whiton, View from the Saloon Before, Humphry Repton, 1796

Whiton, View from the Saloon Before, Humphry Repton, 1796

Whiton, View from the Saloon After, Humphry Repton, 1796

Whiton, View from the Saloon After, Humphry Repton, 1796

Jane Austen famously mentioned Repton and the vogue for landscape transformations in Mansfield Park:

“Mr. Rushworth,” said Lady Bertram, “If I were you, I would have a very pretty shrubbery. One likes to get out into a shrubbery in fine weather.”

Mr. Rushworth was eager to assure her ladyship of his acquiescence, and tried to make out something complimentary; but, between his submission to her taste, and his having always intended the same himself, with the superadded objects of professing attention to the comfort of ladies in general, and of insinuating that there was one only whom he was anxious to please, he grew puzzled, and Edmund was glad to put an end to his speech by a proposal of wine. Mr. Rushworth, however, though not usually a great talker, had still more to say on the subject next his heart. “Smith has not much above a hundred acres altogether in his grounds, which is little enough, and makes it more surprising that the place can have been so improved. Now, at Sotherton we have a good seven hundred, without reckoning the water meadows; so that I think, if so much could be done at Compton, we need not despair. There have been two or three fine old trees cut down, that grew too near the house, and it opens the prospect amazingly, which makes me think that Repton, or anybody of that sort, would certainly have the avenue at Sotherton down: the avenue that leads from the west front to the top of the hill, you know,” turning to Miss Bertram particularly as he spoke. But Miss Bertram thought it most becoming to reply—

“The avenue! Oh! I do not recollect it. I really know very little of Sotherton.”

Fanny, who was sitting on the other side of Edmund, exactly opposite Miss Crawford, and who had been attentively listening, now looked at him, and said in a low voice—

“Cut down an avenue! What a pity! Does it not make you think of Cowper? ‘Ye fallen avenues, once more I mourn your fate unmerited.’”

He smiled as he answered, “I am afraid the avenue stands a bad chance, Fanny.”

“I should like to see Sotherton before it is cut down, to see the place as it is now, in its old state; but I do not suppose I shall.”

“Have you never been there? No, you never can; and, unluckily, it is out of distance for a ride. I wish we could contrive it.”

“Oh! it does not signify. Whenever I do see it, you will tell me how it has been altered.”

“I collect,” said Miss Crawford, “that Sotherton is an old place, and a place of some grandeur. In any particular style of building?”

“The house was built in Elizabeth’s time, and is a large, regular, brick building; heavy, but respectable looking, and has many good rooms. It is ill placed. It stands in one of the lowest spots of the park; in that respect, unfavourable for improvement. But the woods are fine, and there is a stream, which, I dare say, might be made a good deal of. Mr. Rushworth is quite right, I think, in meaning to give it a modern dress, and I have no doubt that it will be all done extremely well.”

Miss Crawford listened with submission, and said to herself, “He is a well–bred man; he makes the best of it.”

“I do not wish to influence Mr. Rushworth,” he continued; “but, had I a place to new fashion, I should not put myself into the hands of an improver. I would rather have an inferior degree of beauty, of my own choice, and acquired progressively. I would rather abide by my own blunders than by his.”

“You would know what you were about, of course; but that would not suit me. I have no eye or ingenuity for such matters, but as they are before me; and had I a place of my own in the country, I should be most thankful to any Mr. Repton who would undertake it, and give me as much beauty as he could for my money; and I should never look at it till it was complete.”

“It would be delightful to me to see the progress of it all,” said Fanny.

“Ay, you have been brought up to it. It was no part of my education; and the only dose I ever had, being administered by not the first favourite in the world, has made me consider improvements in hand as the greatest of nuisances. Three years ago the Admiral, my honoured uncle, bought a cottage at Twickenham for us all to spend our summers in; and my aunt and I went down to it quite in raptures; but it being excessively pretty, it was soon found necessary to be improved, and for three months we were all dirt and confusion, without a gravel walk to step on, or a bench fit for use. I would have everything as complete as possible in the country, shrubberies and flower–gardens, and rustic seats innumerable: but it must all be done without my care. Henry is different; he loves to be doing.” – Mansfield Park, Chapter 6

Repton's suggested improvements for house and landscape, p. 48, The Landscape Gardening and the Landscape Garden of the Late Humprhey Repton

Repton's suggested improvements for house and landscape, p. 48, The Landscape Gardening and the Landscape Garden of the Late Humprhey Repton

Repton, who was prolific in his thirty year career, taking on over 400 commissions, believed in providing picturesque vistas that included focal points from certain stops along a circuitous path wending its way through the landscape. He wrote how he accomplished this:

First, by collecting the wood into larger masses and distinguishing the lawns in a broad masterly manner without the confused frittering of too many single trees;

Secondly, by the interesting line of road winding through the lawn;

Thirdly, by the introduction of cattle to enliven the scene; and

Lastly, by the appearance of a seat on the knoll and a part of the house with its proposed alterations displaying its turrets and pinnacles amongst the trees. –  The Landscape Gardening and Landscape Architecture of the Late Humphrey Repton, Esq Being His Entire Works on These Subjects By Humphry Repton, John Claudius Loudon

Learn More About Humphry Repton by clicking on these links:

Hayes Image: Lasdun, Susan. The English Park, Royal, Private and Public. London. 1991, p 103. Print.

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The Gardens of Jane Austen’s England are a series of photos taken on a tour group in 2007. Click on the site to find images of Jane Austen’s houses and locations of her film adaptations.

The Royal Horticultural Society writes about the Royal pavilion’s restored Regency gardens, and defines the Regency garden style in this short article.

Beautiful black and white photographs of the architectural details of Stoneleigh Abbey in Warwickshire are featured in Art and Architecture. Stoneleigh Abbey was the county seat of Cassandra Austen’s (nee Leigh’s) family. (Click on family tree to see the connection.)


Famed landscape architect Humphry Repton worked on the gardens at Stoneleigh Abbey. These images show the mansion and its surroundings before and after Repton’s changes, in which the house becomes integral to a natural looking landscape.
Jane Austen’s Life and Works in Google Earth is an amazingly detailed site that lists every location Jane visited, lived in, or mentioned in her novels. Download Google earth, and see images of these sites as taken from above. Find a direct link to the site here.

Mansion Illustrations from: Humphry Repton at Stoneleigh Abbey, Warwickshire, by Edward Malins, Garden History, Vol. 5, No. 1 (Spring, 1977), pp. 21-29, Published by: The Garden History Society.

Mother and child illustration: Maternal love, from: Kate Greenaway. Language of flowers. London: G. Routledge and Sons, [1884]

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