Humphry Repton's Red Book for Port Eliot (1793)
Humphry Repton circulated in the highest society throughout England at the turn of the 18th century. Having failed in a number of business ventures (ranging from everything between political agent and journalist), Repton decided to create his own profession as a "landscape gardener". He used his skills as an artist (obviously considerable, in an amateur sort of way), combined with his decided opinions on the proper way of laying out grounds and scenery on large estates, to market himself to wealthy landowners. Since no one would pay astronomical fees for mere opinions, Repton hit on the brilliant idea of creating a handwritten, hand-illustrated book to present to the landowner in exchange for a predetermined fee. These books were bound in red morocco leather and subsequently referred to as "Red Books".
In 1792 (just four years after Repton began his landscaping career), Edward, 1st Lord Eliot, entered into discussions with him about improving Port Eliot. Architect John Johnson had recently finished some renovation work – including the addition of the renowned Round Room – but the Eliot house and park still needed some work to bring it up to standard as a true manorial Country Seat. Obviously, Lord Eliot had definite ideas of his own for improving his estate, evidenced by some surviving loose papers and illustrations tucked into the back of the Port Eliot Red Book. In fact, Lord Eliot's ideas were so complete that Repton began his own notes by saying that he had "done little more than shewn the effect of realizing your Lordship's own ideas and intentions".
While Lord Eliot had definite plans for changes and improvements to the landscaping and ancillary buildings, Repton added some grand plans of his own regarding the house and the village of St. Germans. There was no possible way that the penurious Lord Eliot would ever consider undertaking the expense of actually changing the look of the whole town, just so that the view was complimentary to the appearance of the house and St. German's church. In fact, Repton even proposed an additional cloister to connect Port Eliot to the church – a rather implausible idea, since the Eliots did not "own" the church or have any right to incorporate it into their private residence.
Most of Repton's grand plans would have seemed outrageous to the tightly gripped purse of Lord Eliot, so it comes as no surprise that Port Eliot's Red Book became one more conversation piece, proving the plans to "be a waste of Time, Thought and Contrivance", as Repton stated was often the case with his work. Red Books were often kept as works of art by their owners and displayed for visitors and friends to admire. This was most certainly the case with the Eliots, because their book has been handed down, generation after generation, as an almost sacred family heirloom.
A few of the landscaping suggestions from the Red Book were implemented into the Port Eliot park, but none of the architectural changes were undertaken. Instead, Lord Eliot called upon the famous architect, John Soane, to begin a massive renovation of the house in 1802. Repton corresponded with Soane at this time, but the two men disagreed violently in their approach, and Repton faded away from the scene.
Thanks to Lord St. Germans (Peregrine, 10th Earl), the Port Eliot Red Book is shown here in its entirety. Many thanks also go to Malcolm and David, without whose help and photographs this section would have been impossible to include on the website!