Secret files of Humphry Repton, pioneer who took the wealthy up the garden path

IT has been the grand gateway to a million family days out since the 1950s, but newly discovered documents reveal that the triumphal arch at the entrance to Harewood House is a only pale imitation of the one originally envisaged.

The gardens at Harewood House
The gardens at Harewood House

Not only did the pioneer landscape designer Humphry Repton plan an even more imposing structure on the road’s edge, he got into a public war of words over it with the Earl, each trading blows in the columns of the newspapers.

Repton was the largely forgotten father of landscape design, and the details of much of his work at Harewood and other stately homes were thought lost.

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But a research project to mark the 200th anniversary of his death has uncovered new pages from the “red books” of grand designs he produced for wealthy landowners.

Mulgrave, near Whitby. Courtesy of the Marquess and Marchioness of Normanby

Among them are the details of a house on Yorkshire’s southern border that had been built on the scale of Harewood but then demolished when one of Repton’s garden projects went wrong.

“He had very grandiose ideas, and once the Yorkshire landowners saw what he was proposing, they often backed away because of the price tag attached,” said Karen Lynch, a garden historian and co-author of a new book about Repton.

“Lots of people commissioned him with no intention of carrying out the works. They just wanted to have his red book in the library, to show their guests that they’d had the famous Mr Repton in to give his advice.”

The books now change hands for tens of thousands, despite Repton’s relative obscurity – especially compared to his predecessor, Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown, who had originally laid out the grounds at Harewood.

Repton was commissioned there by Edwin Lascelles, the first Baron Harewood, who was so keen for work to start that he didn’t wait for Repton to draw up his red book, but settled for drawings. Some were put on display when the house opened to the public six decades ago but others were believed lost.

“Repton proposed was the triumphal arch that you see as you as you drive into the estate,” Ms Lynch said. “But he wanted something that was much further forward and near the line of the road – and in old age he got very disgruntled and moaned in print about Lord Harewood not having carried out the work as he said it should have been done.”

But if Harewood was a disappointment to Repton, the lost house at Langold, built to similar proportions to the east of Sheffield, was an outright disaster. Some of Repton’s landscaping survives in the country park that now stands there, but a lake he designed for a contractor to build, could not be made to stop leaking.

“It went a funny colour so eventually the owners abandoned the site. Eventually it passed into the hands of the Coal Board,” Ms Lynch said.

“It’s in an area that was developed for mining, and people just haven’t realised what a picturesque beauty they have on their doorstep.”

Repton’s legacy in Yorkshire also takes in Mulgrave Castle near Whitby, Wentworth Woodhouse near Rotherham and the present-day home of Gotts Park Golf Club in Leeds.

Many of Repton’s gardens were lost along with their houses. The most obscure was at Bessacarr, near Doncaster, where no records survive and a housing estate now stands.

An exhibition of his work is on in London, with some examples to be shown in Leeds this year.