Humphry Repton, Robbie Burns and red, red roses: Julia Grigg's Morrab Miscellany

In Julia’s stroll through the alphabet we reach R and meet garden designer Humphry Repton who was famed for his Red Books; and Scottish poet Robbie Burns known for comparing his love to a red, red rose.

With R comes the turn of Humphry REPTON, third of the trio of famed C18th garden designers. Repton became very successful in the wake of William Kent and ‘Capability’ Brown, his signature RED BOOKS ensuring him enduring fame.

My reading of Repton is that he was expert in public RELATIONS. Referred to prominent landowners, he made his assessment of their properties followed by astute recommendations for beautification. Taste in garden design was evolving at this time and Repton appears to have been very plausible, persuading his clients to follow his advice, even if going against principles earlier established by Kent and Brown.

For example, where his predecessors had often radically swept away formal gardens around an estate’s main house, Repton might propose their reintroduction along with some return of formality and order. Often, he would concern himself with improving a vista by, for example, creating a lake or cutting away at a copse of trees, revealing a church tower in the distance which would act as a focal point,

A view across the lake at Sheffield Park Gardens, work of the garden designer Humphry Repton
“Autumn at Sheffield Park Garden in Sussex” by Anguskirk is licensed with CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Unlike Kent and Brown, men who fully engaged with a project’s engineering principles, Repton’s involvement was only with the design recommendation. He did not prepare detailed plans, leaving the interpretation and practical execution of his ideas to others.

Repton’s Red Books were his USP: he regarded them as working plans, advertisements and aide-memoires. By the end of his career he claimed to have made more than four hundred.

Within the Books’ fine bindings of morocco leather Repton placed his beautifully-scripted report and illustrated the work he was proposing with water colour landscapes. Cleverly, adding to the powers of persuasion of his written words, these paintings could show his client the ‘before’ version and the ‘after’ of his vision by means of pages with overlay flaps. When lifted up, these clearly demonstrated the effects of his improvements.

The Books were also a ready source of documentation for the publications Repton produced expounding his gardening expertise. His Red Book of the Welbeck estate, for example, provided the basis of his Sketches and Hints on Landscape Gardening. In this volume he cites extracts from fifty-six other Red Books.

Repton’s Red Books have been preserved; more than 100 survive. Two are held by the Morgan Library ( in New York, and can be viewed via an online exhibition. In Britain three are in their original locations: at Antony House, Torpoint, Cornwall, at Attingham Park in Shropshire and at Sheringham Hall, Norfolk. At Sheringham ( the Book, dating from 1812, is displayed in a permanent exhibit.

A Page from the Red Book by garden designer Humphrey Repton showing Attingham Park after remodelling
Attingham Park
A Page from the Red Book by Humphrey Repton showing the park after remodelling Photo: John Rea Studios


Burns, born in Ayrshire in 1759, was a pioneer of the ROMANTIC movement. According to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, ‘The Romanticism of the late C18th to mid-C19th can be seen as a rejection of the precepts of order, calm, harmony, balance, idealization and rationality that typified the preceding era of Classicism and the scientific and logical ideals of the Enlightenment.’ Romanticism emphasized the individual, the subjective, the irrational, the imaginative, the personal, the spontaneous, the emotional, the visionary and the transcendental.

Burns’ poetry is said to have inspired Wordsworth and Shelley and, after his death in 1796, the ideas he upheld were drawn on by the politicians who were to be the founders of both liberalism and socialism in Scotland. To this day he remains one of Scotland’s most important cultural icons.

Each November 25th Burns’ birthday is celebrated with high-spirited haggis dinners, many wee drams being raised in toasts along with recitations of his songs and verses accompanied by the skirl of bagpipes.

Who does not know Burns’ poem A RED, RED ROSE?

O my Luve is like a red, red rose
That’s newly sprung in June;
O my Luve is like the melody
That’s sweetly played in tune.

Burns’ first published collection, Poems Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect, was published in 1786, granting him immediate fame.

The frontispiece and title page of Robbie Burns' first published collection of poems
“Poems Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect, First Edinburgh Edition, 1787” by Dumfries Museum is licensed with CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

He collected ‘A Red, Red Rose’ in 1794. Now one of the most famous of all Scottish love songs, Burns referred to it as ‘wild and free… a simple old Scots song which I picked up [from a young girl I met] in the country.’ The lyrics were set to music by Pietro Urbani and published in Scots Songs.

A formal rose garden to wander in is not a feature of Morrab Gardens but the front gardens of the houses in the streets surrounding it have many fine specimens on show, climbing around doorways and commandeering trellises.

If thinking to plant a rose and seeking to have the reddest of the red there are many candidates to consider, bold scarlet Freedom and delicate magenta Darcey Bussell among the top choices. But if you were to narrow the field by consulting only the David Austin catalogue ( and if you required your rose to also be highly-scented then Austin’s shrub rose Munstead Wood, a repeat-flowering, large shallowly-cupped flower in deep velvety crimson, introduced in 2007, might be the answer.

This rose’s aroma is enticingly described as – sigh! – ‘a real red-rose fragrance, a strong Old Rose scent highlighted by warm, fruity notes of blackberry, blueberry and damson, a classic rose perfume.’

A red rose, 'Munstead Wood' bred by David Austen
The David Austen rose ‘Munstead Wood’

“File:Rose ‘Munstead Wood’-8742493617.jpg” by pemberlolly is licensed with CC BY 2.0.


Bluebells: in Britain we have bluebells better than anywhere else in the world. Certainly in my top 10 flowers, I just love their delicacy. I love their colour, I’m a blue girl myself. I also love their scent, very soft and gentle but really there.

Grow, Cook, Eat, Arrange is the name gardening supremo Sarah Raven (1963 – ) has given to the weekly podcast she launched early this year (available on all major streaming platforms). Aimed at a broad audience the podcast’s designed, through tips, techniques and recipes, to celebrate the joys gardening brings to home and kitchen. Trained as a doctor but since 1994 running her home, Perch Hill Farm in Sussex, as a gardening and cookery school and mail order plant business, Sarah is passionate – and highly successful, – as a practitioner, writer and teacher. ‘Gardening feeds me on every level,’ she says. ‘I think about the garden from the moment I get up (which is very early) to the moment I go to sleep. I can’t imagine life without it.’

Read more of Julia Grigg’s Morrab Miscellany

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