Humphry Repton’s favourite & darling child
The great landscape designer Humphry Repton completed over 400 commissions during his illustrious career, but there’s no doubt about his greatest achievement – the stunning beauty of Sheringham Park
Sheringham Park is one of Norfolk’s most idyllic locations. While the hall at its heart is privately occupied, the surrounding grounds offer a constant draw for visitors who revel in the spectacular views from the several overlook towers and wonder at the outstanding gardens - which include a rare snowdrop tree, 15 different kinds of magnolia, the first plane trees in Norfolk, and some rhododendrons that originated with the famous Victorian plant collector and explorer Ernest ‘Chinese’ Wilson.
It may appear the most natural of settings, but the beauty of Sheringham Park is largely artificial - a testament to the vision and talents of the last great English landscape designer of the 18th century.
When Abbot and Charlotte Upcher completed the purchase of Sheringham Park in 1811, they weren’t too impressed with the farmhouse that sat on the site. It hardly fitted their status and was clearly unsuitable for their growing family. The solicitor who’d handled the sale recommended they talk to his father, and it was that happy coincidence that brought Humphry Repton to Sheringham.
Having tried (and failed) to make a career out of textiles and playwriting, Repton had been devoting his artistic talents to landscape gardening since 1788 - and had already completed successful projects for the mayor of Norwich and Lord Coke at Holkham Hall.
His trademark was his famous ‘Red Book’ in which he presented designs to his clients (named after the colour of the book’s distinctive leather binding) and he’d go on to produce over 120 of them. Possibly none are held in such high regard as the one he produced for the Upchers at Sheringham - it’s now held at the Royal Institution of British Architects’ library at the Victoria & Albert Museum.
Repton’s vision for Sheringham was as ambitious as it was sympathetic to the location. While the owners wanted their new hall to offer a sea view, Repton suggested it be positioned in the shelter of the nearby oak woodland.
“The sea at Sheringham,” he said, “is not like that of the Bay of Naples.” And his view prevailed.
This was Repton’s chance to create the ideal country estate, especially as he felt the rest of the country was falling apart - Britain was at war with France and was in deep recession. The Prime Minister had just been assassinated, and the king had descended into madness.
His design required that the Upchers’ new hall become part of the local community - keeping the building itself relatively modest, allowing visitors to enjoy the views, and encouraging locals to collect dead wood from within the estate boundaries.
He recommended the addition of a cornfield to emphasise the fact this was a place for production as well as pleasure, and his suggestions for extending the woodlands were particularly significant at a time when trees were being cut down all over the country for shipbuilding.
Repton also added a touch of theatre, suggesting carving through a ridge of hills so the main approach to the hall created a point where Sheringham Hall appeared to the visitor suddenly and dramatically - “like some enchanted Palace of a Fairy Tale.”
Repton was an extraordinary designer, but that was generally as far as his involvement went - it was up to his clients to implement (or not) his ideas - but he was obviously proud of his designs for Sheringham Park, a project he described as his “favourite and darling child in Norfolk.”
His son John designed the hall itself, and Repton was present when the first foundation stones were laid in July 1813. Sadly, he died six years later before he could see the realisation of his grand vision for Sheringham Park. Over the course of 30 years, he’d completed over 400 commissions, but this beautiful part of Norfolk is now considered the best preserved and most complete example of Repton’s work.