Humphrey Repton and the Bloomsbury Squares

One of my favourite areas of London and one which I have written on previously is  Bloomsbury.  Once the area was full of grand achitectural squares with lush green gardens as their centre piece.  Even today, the area retains an air of quiet, gentle elegance though wartime bombing and construction have taken their toll on some areas there are still numerous beautiful garden squares most notably Russell, Bedford, Tavistock and Fitzroy.

Despite being in the very heart of London, most overseas visitors will hardly have entered Bloomsbury with the British Museum being the only major attraction and that being on the edge of the district and few if any of them will know what part of London the British Museum is in.

If there has to be one relatively well visited garden square then it is 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 and whose legacy is currently being celebrated at Woburn Abbey, home of the Russell family whose forebears are responsible for these very first suburbs of London, albeit about 25-30 miles from the current outskirts of the city

Russell Square is perhaps my favourite London square due to its size and scale. 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 and which on looks on down one of the many gorgeous Bloomsbury streets.

Bedford Square

Bedford Square

Fans of the country houses and stately homes of England will associate Repton’s name with rolling acreage and endless vistas. And it is true many of the 400 commissions he took during a 30-year career were to design the land around aristocratic family seats, including grounds at Betchworth House in Surrey, Longleat, Brighton’s Royal Pavilion, Tatton Park and at Woburn Abbey.

But Repton also brought green flashes into the heart of London. In fact his influence is behind the ordered lawns and flower beds now emblematic of the capital around the world. “epton brought nature into the city. It has been said that “He wanted order in a layout, but he wanted variety within that sense of order, or he felt it would be boring. He wanted to allow people to spend time as they moved through a square”.

Lord John Russell first employed Repton to work on the grounds of his Woburn Abbey house in Bedfordshire,  before his brother continued development of the Bloomsbury estate, bringing in the same designer.

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Russell Square in autumn

The Bloomsbury area was ripe for development because it was close to the City yet looked straight out on open fields to the north, with views up to the hills of Highgate and Hampstead. Repton’s square gardens had areas to sit, with wandering, gravel pathways and areas where children could play. He wanted them to be places for relaxed play. They were tamed versions of the natural world.

Pushing against a romantic trend for faux wilderness, Repton brought back terraces, gravel walks and flower beds with ornamental or themed planting around the house and gave birth to the modern suburban garden.

In London a new elite fashion for walking and entertaining in squares was mocked by the press, as Edward Walford noted in 1878 in his book Old And New London, writing: “It is said that the Duchess of Bedford sent out cards to her guests, inviting them to ‘take tea and walk in the fields’; and sarcastic persons remarked, that it was expected that syllabubs would soon be milked in Berkeley Square, around the statue of his Majesty.”

Repton was born in 1752, the son of a wealthy Bury St Edmunds tax collector, and was sent to the Netherlands to learn Dutch and prepare for a commercial career. By 1773 he was married and in business in Norwich. But it did not suit him.

He travelled to Ireland to work as private secretary to William Windham, Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, and made contacts he could call upon as an “improver of the landscape”.

In 1788 the 36-year-old put his skills on the market, aiming to fill the gap left by the death of Lancelot “Capability” Brown five years earlier.

Repton became renowned for his “red books”, folios of his drawings. Packed with maps and descriptions, they included a low-tech equivalent of the PowerPoint presentation: watercolours with overlays showing “before” and “after” views.

Map of Bloomsbury

Map of Bloomsbury

Repton outlined four key principles for good design in his book, Observations on the Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening. “First, it must display the natural beauties and hide the defects of every situation,” he wrote. “Secondly, it should give the appearance of extent and freedom by carefully disguising or hiding the boundary. Thirdly, it must studiously conceal every interference of art. However expensive by which the natural scenery is improved; making the whole appear the production of nature only; and fourthly, all objects of mere convenience or comfort, if incapable of being made ornamental, or of becoming proper parts of the general scenery, must be removed or concealed.”

For Hirst, the distinction with Capability Brown is evident in the way Repton introduced a decorative railing between the house and deer and sheep to “reassure” the aristocracy, where Brown used a sunken barrier, the ha-ha.

Towards the end of his life Repton feared his profession would “become extinct”. He died on 24 March 1818, and was buried at Aylsham, Norfolk.

“In every place I was consulted I found that I was gifted with a peculiar facility for seeing almost immediately the way in which it might be improved,” he wrote in his memoir.

There are 10 garden squares remaining in Bloomsbury but the entire district has a special feeling about.  Over the last few centuries is has garnered a reputation as being a hotbed of literature with writers as such as Charles Dickens, Virginia Woolf, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and many others such as the creator of Peter Pan, J M Barrie.

As well as being a hotbed for universities such as my own at SOAS, it has also attracted eccentrics such as Aleister Crowley who was titled the wickedest man in the world, political leaders such as Gandhi, suffragettes and forward thinking philosophers such as Jeremy Bentham.

If you’re coming to London and want to visit somewhere a bit artsy and away from the crowds then why not come on one of several of my tours that visit here such as Charles Dickens, Sherlock Holmes and of course my specific Bloomsbury Literary Walk.

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About Stephen Liddell

I am a writer and traveller with a penchant for history and getting off the beaten track. With several books to my name including a #1 seller, I also write environmental, travel and history articles for magazines as well as freelance work. Recently I've appeared on BBC Radio and Bloomberg TV and am waiting on the filming of a ghost story on British TV. I run my own private UK tours company (Ye Olde England Tours) with small, private and totally customisable guided tours run by myself!
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