Humphry Repton was the first person to use the title of Landscape Gardener. He made it up by combining his interest in landscape painting with his skills in practical gardening. 200 years since his death, Woburn Abbey have created a new exhibition to celebrate his work and his life.

Bloomsbury, London

Russell, Bedford, Tavistock and Fitzroy; the roll call of grand architectural squares around Bloomsbury is as familiar to Londoners as the tube stops of the daily commute. Yet only a few of these mighty residential developments near the British Museum still show traces of the luxuriant, leafy gardens once at their centres. Wartime bombing and the pressures of commerce have taken their toll.

Chief among the survivors is the garden of Russell Square, a large public space with circular walkways and criss-crossing, meandering paths that was restored to its original shape in 2002. It stands as the crowning urban legacy of the Suffolk-born designer now widely regarded as a visionary: the 18th-century landscape gardener Humphry Repton, who died 200 years ago this weekend and is being celebrated in a new exhibition at Woburn Abbey, Bedfordshire.

“Russell Square is my favourite London square, as it’s the most generous in size and scale,” said Matthew Hirst, who curated the exhibition at Woburn which examines Repton’s aesthetic and puts several of his most innovative designs on display for the first time. “It is a sensitive piece of landscaping, with the statue of the Duke of Bedford on the edge of the square in a little apse, where it can be seen. He also cleverly creates a line of sight down to the statue at the top of Bedford Place.”

Woburn Abbey

On his inheritance of Woburn, the 6th Duke continued his brother’s, the 5th Duke of Bedford, development of the Estate. In 1804 he invited Repton to suggest proposals for landscaping the Abbey grounds after all of the building work at The Abbey. Repton sent his Red Book, filled with his ideas for the estate, to Woburn in January 1805. 

This book contained a number of plans that were eventually carried out such as a new approach from the London Road, the thornery plantation and a viaduct. Others were partly carried out such as the pleasure grounds layout, hills either side of the driveway and changes to the Basin Pond dam. Finally, some suggestions were not enacted at all. These included new road layouts, including the driveway to the West Front, and alterations to the pond shoreline.

It is the pleasure grounds that form the main area considered to be Woburn Abbey Gardens today. Although the paths and excavations were completed, the Menagerie built and the bridge over the Greenhouse pond constructed, most of Repton’s vision for the pleasure grounds was unrealised.

It seems that perhaps his ideas of “fanciful decoration” were just not to the taste of the Duke and Duchess. In the end, with the input of Sinclair and Wyatville, gardens for recreation and relaxation were built over the subsequent decade, together with exciting and magical places for the children to play.

You can learn more about the work of Humphry Repton and his plans for Woburn Abbey at one of our study days. Take a look their our event listings for more information. 

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