Preserving Humphry Repton’s Big Revelation

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Repton was a prominent 19th-century English landscape painter who took an innovative approach to illustrating design proposals for his clients’ gardens, many of which are compiled in an elaborate gilded leather volume titled Fragments on the theory and practice of landscape gardening (1816).

Humphry Repton, published in 1839

I met for the first time Fragment when the Ryerson and Burnham Library copy of the museum arrived at the Book Preservation Lab. I was asked to work on the damaged cover and several detached folding illustrations, with the aim of restoring function while retaining the original materials.

In this volume, Repton’s original watercolor garden designs are reproduced as hand-tinted aquatints, with movable paper flaps that are lifted by the reader to reveal Repton’s design proposals, creating a powerful visual representation of the landscape before and after its proposed interventions.

Here is how they work.

Robert Andrew’s Estate, Harlestone Park, Northamptonshire, circa 1808, as depicted by Repton

From Fragment Seven. The house was destroyed in 1939.

In the design above, the Harlestone Park flyer reveals that the entrance has been altered, the stables have been removed, and a bridge-like structure (on the right side) has been added to the road to reveal the swimming pool like a river. Moreover, the trees were not felled by Repton workers, but when a “furious windstorm tore up the roots of eighty-seven of the larger elms and a single oak tree; producing exactly the enhancing effect that I had expected, but had not dared to recommend.

Around 1814, Repton proposed to modify the grounds of the Beaudesert estate (below) by building courtyards, greenhouses and terraces to separate his gardens from the surrounding forest. The most dramatic alteration would have been to remove large trees from a ravine and dyke adjacent streams to create a small lake, as revealed below by lifting the flap. Even though Repton made dare to recommend cutting down trees this time, the design was never executed.

The estate of the first Earl of Uxbridge, Beaudesert, Staffordshire, circa 1813, first presented in Repton’s proposal of 1814

From Fragment Eleven. This design was not executed and the house was subsequently demolished.

other fascinating features

Shade guide

Treating this volume, like any object, nourishes an intimate understanding of the work, and with Fragment I had the opportunity to observe the intense amount of work involved in its production. For example, Repton gives the modern reader the rare gift of explicitly describing his coloring process in the book itself. In Fragment Twelve, titled “Concerning Colors,” Repton discusses his studies of color theory and includes detailed instructions for the craftsmen who colored the aquatints in. Fragment by the hand. In his words:

“As the plates from my old work employed a large number of women and children to color them, I hope to make the process much easier in this present work, by the following instructions given to the printer and colorist.”

Hand-tinted swatches displaying Repton’s reflections on color theory

Repton continues: “The plates to be printed in a bluish gray ink (this is the neutral shade for the light and shadow of the Landscape); the dye to wash in the sky with blue or purple etc. according to each sketch; too go on distances with the same color; then wash the foregrounds and intermediate distances with red, orange or yellow, copying the drawings; and when dry, wash with blue, to produce the greens in the middle distances: this being done as a dead coloring; a few touches from the master’s hand; and a harmonizing shade to soften the whole, will produce all the expected effect of a colorful print.

The guide below offers a variation on the before and after theme, with instructions on coloring a landscape after sunrise (left) and in the morning twilight before sunrise (right). As Repton explains, the two landscapes “represent the same scene before and after sunrise; that is, before and after the natural coloring process.

Composition and printing process

In many countries before the end of the 19th century, print types were created through a painstaking process in which a typeface was hand carved from metal and then pressed into a mold called a die. Individual pieces of type were then cast from the die using an alloy of lead, tin and antimony (an element found in minerals and alloyed with other metals to improve their hardness. and their resistance). This process was repeated to create a complete set of letters and associated characters, one font.

The metallic characters were defined, piece by piece, in words, lines, paragraphs and pages. Groups of pages were then placed on the bed of a printing press, inked and printed by hand. Subtle clues that indicate the composition and printing processes are scattered throughout Fragment, as seen below.

Processing

As a curatorial technician, I focus on the preparation and assembly of books, periodicals and archival materials for exhibitions, as well as the preservation and stabilization of our collections, including safe housing and a minimal treatment to stabilize damaged objects. Unlike some works of art, books are meant to be handled and manipulated, and this inherent quality often contributes to their disrepair. Damage to a fastener affects not only its appearance, but also its function.

To stabilize and strengthen weak areas of the Fragment, thin layers of Japanese kozo paper, a material known for its strength and stability, were applied with paste. The resulting paper fillings displayed their own healing nature, resembling bandages or casts, before being toned with acrylic paints thinned down to match the leather.

While a properly functioning binding is a crucial part of any book, dealing with broken flyers was just as important because of their importance to Repton’s practice. Kozo paper was used on the interior joints and on the delicate hinges of the illustrated leaflets, rendering their range of motion and function.

farewell thoughts

Work closely with Fragment Not only revealed to me its importance to both the history of landscaping and book production, it deepened my appreciation of typography, the history of printing, the materiality of books and the understanding that books can be works of art. It also reminds me of how artists and designers like Repton have used available technology to showcase and sell their work in the same way we use digital technology to promote our own work now. His meticulous and innovative studies of light and color captured moments in time, real and imagined, that we can continue to admire today.

—Pamela Olson, conservation technician, books, conservation and science

One last look out the window at Barningham

Fragments on the theory and practice of landscape gardening, housed among the rich collections of books on art, architecture and design at the Ryerson and Burnham Libraries, was last exhibited at the Art Institute in 2015 for A Picturesque Ideal: The Art of Landscape and Garden Design. Repton’s book also serves as a valuable resource for the School of the Art Institute’s architectural history classes.

Quote

Repton, Humphry and Repton, J. Adey. Fragments on the theory and practice of landscape gardening. London: Printed by T. Bensely and Son, Bolt Court, Fleet Street; for J. Taylor, in the Architectural Library, High Holborn, 1816.

Call number: ff Special SB471 .R423 1816

The subjects

  • Preservation
  • Collection
  • Artists


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