The first Lord Mansfield died in 1793 and, as he had no children of his own, he was succeeded by his nephew, David Murray, Viscount Stormont (1727–96). It seems that David was keen to make changes and before the year was out he invited one of the most celebrated men of the era, landscaper Humphry Repton, to advise him on improvements.
Repton looks alright to me but he got on a lot of peoples nerves at the time. He was thought to be a bit too cocky with a tendency towards a know-it-all air. Even Jane Austen lampooned him in Mansfield Park as a money-minded, cunning rogue who roamed the country, preying on the gullible wealthy and supplying them with fashionably picturesque vistas. Here’s his very eye catching business card which, to my mind, sets out his stall pretty effectively.
He had a trick up his sleeve though which people couldn’t resist – his Red Books. He presented his ideas in a beautifully bound red leather volume in which he painted the site as it was and then stuck on painted flaps which, when opened, would reveal the amazing difference his suggestions would make. An 18th century before and after – a winner! The top image is before, the bottom, after, with the addition of a nice curvy hill fringed with new woodland (not Kenwood).
In 1793 he produced such a book for Kenwood (it still exists, in Scone Palace, but I cannot source any images from it), and visited three times between 1793 and 1796. According to Historic England.org ‘He advised the Earl’s architects, Robert Nasmith and later George Saunders, on the building works. The landscaping included the removal of the kitchen garden to the west of the house and the extension to the south of both ends of the terrace, to enclose the lawn. Repton made further proposals but this work was largely carried out by George Saunders, William Marshall, William Emes, and others, under the guidance of Edward Hunter, the estate steward. The work included: enlarging the house; diverting Hampstead Lane to the north, making new entrances with drives and a forecourt to the north of the house (laid out by George Saunders); a flower garden on the site of the former kitchen garden (attributed by J C Loudon to the estate gardener); new stables, service wing, and lodges; and an octagonal farmhouse (designed by William Marshall).’
Whatever criticism people levelled at Repton there was no denying that he had a good eye and was able to envisage the way whole tracts of landscape could look with the right sort of tweak. Stephen Daniels reveals that at Kenwood he cunningly positioned a frieze of trees to obscure ‘common’ Kentish Town, while a massive oak was uprooted so that St Paul’s could be seen again from the terrace. He broke up featureless expansive views by planting groves of trees for variety, colour and contrast and threaded winding walks throughout the estate.
The gardens and parkland known to Repton and his patron survive in large part today and are being gently restored to his vision wherever possible. Most of us have walked through the grounds without giving Humphry a second thought but he deserves some credit so next time you’re passing a pretty view here – bear him in mind.