Repton and the prince Posted on December 14, 2018

Repton has always been the landscaper for me. He seems more human (and of course marginally more modern) than Brown. For one thing he writes clearly and eloquently about his aims and methods. I often find myself quoting the sound sense of his ‘Observations’. For another he seems to have a gardener’s weakness for the beauty of flowers and the pleasure of wandering among different plants.

All this comes across in the brilliant little exhibition at The Garden Museum that commemorates 200 years since he died. And then yesterday I came across a description of what sounds very like one of his gardens in the letters of Prince Puckler-Muskau. The prince has just spent a long hot day at Ascot. He rides off with an army friend to visit a fashionable lady who lives at Windsor. They arrive at her house, with no one there:

‘It was like the enchanted dwelling of a fairy. If only you could have seen it! The house stood on a hill, half hidden beneath magnificent old trees. Its various projections, dating from different eras, were concealed by shrubs here and there, so there was no possibility of getting an impression of the whole. A gallery-like rose arbour bursting with hundreds of flowers led directly to the entrance hall, and passing through a few other rooms and then a corridor, we arrived in the dining room, where the table had already been handsomely laid. But there was still no one to be seen.

From here the gardens extended before us, a true paradise, brilliantly illuminated by the evening sun. Verandas of varying shapes and sizes ran along the whole length of the house; some jutted forward, some retreated, and all were covered with different blossoming vines. These served as a border for the colourful flower garden that extended all across the hillside. A meadowy valley, deep and narrow, adjoined this, and behind the terrain rose again to a higher crest, its slopes appointed with ancient beeches. To the left, at the valley’s end, the view was closed by water, and in the distance, over the tops of the trees, we could see the Round Tower of Windsor Castle, with its colossal royal flag rising into the blue sky.’

If you haven’t met Prince Puckler, his letters to his wife in Germany are the most vivid and entertaining account of fashionable England in the 1820s. They were published (a very fat book) by Dumbarton Oaks in 2016 under the rather odd title of Letters of a Dead Man. He was determined to transform his inheritance of a mansion and its large park in Germany into an English landscape garden. The question was how to find the money. His wife agreed to an amicable divorce if he could find a rich English bride. The letters are his account of his (finally fruitless) search,  while he explores England from palace to pub, enjoying every minute.

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