Book Review: The New English Garden
“A garden is inseparable from its legends. It needs, as well as walking, reading” Alasdair Forbes, Plaz Metaxu
At first glance The New English Garden by Tim Richardson looks like your typical coffee table book. Large, heavy and full of stunning atmospheric photographs by that well-known garden photographer Andrew Lawson. However, it soon become evident that the text is not along the lines of the predictable and polite articles on gardens that appear in the glossy garden magazines. I shouldn’t be surprised as Tim Richardson is not only a writer but a historian and wrote Oxford University’s first garden history course which I completed at the start of this year.
The introduction, unlike many that seem to go through the process, sets out the remit of the book in clear terms but also signals that the book will raise questions such are how we should look at gardens and whether they should be considered in terms of art. It is clear that Richardson is a proponent of the increasing movement which argues that gardens should be viewed in the same way as we view other works of art be they painting, books, sculptures or plays. His stance is that “Gardens bust the boundaries of art, science, craft, and hobbydom (as well as social class, on occasion), often to the chagrin of the guardians of those particular bailiwicks”. Richardson is clear in the criteria he used for choosing the gardens featured – they are all in England, as opposed to Britain, and have been made or re-made in the last decade. He goes on to set out a brief summary of the changes to garden design since the 1990 noting the move towards more naturalistic planting but also commenting that there is a quiet move back towards the more traditional English style “under the radar ‘traditional’ English garden style has been quietly developing”
Turning the page from the introduction the first garden you encounter is Armscote Manor designed by Dan Pearson. I was dismayed at this point as the first three paragraphs were all about Pearson and not the garden; plus I’m not a Pearson fan. Taking a different approach I decided to read the chapters on gardens I knew. There are 26 gardens featured in the book with most of the key current designers also featured. However, I decided to look at Highgrove and The Laskett both which I know well. I chose them as they are gardens that cause a difference of opinion and some quite strong views and they are also both designed by either their owner or the owner and a collection of designers.
I have read much about Highgrove over the years, as well as visiting twice, but I found the article in this book, and they are all like individual articles that can be read in isolation, refreshingly honest. Richardson sets out a little of the background explaining how very few people had seen the garden until things changed and you could book to visit in a group. He surmises that the exclusive nature of the visits and the royalness of the owner have added to the kudos of the garden making it a ‘must see’ garden. His approach to many of the gardens is to walk you through it showing you the highlights. At Highgrove he identifies three areas which he considers excellent: The Thyme Walk, the Wildflower Meadow and the Stumpery. However, he then considers the rest of the garden commenting that its biggest issue is to incorporate the many gifts that the Prince of Wales receives which have to be included somewhere for diplomatic reasons which gives the garden “an eclectic and occasionally eccentric feel” and as Richardson says the visitor comes away “with no clear sense of the garden’s personality”. I was particularly interested in the idea that Richardson puts forward of a quiet design school in the 1980s who “promulgated a fashionable style of gardening based on a concept of the small formal garden or period garden.” The proponents of this style include most of the garden designers that have advised the Prince over the years including Rosemary Verey and Sir Roy Strong – the owner and creator of The Laskett.
I like the Laskett but I know I am in a minority. I was pleased to see that Richardson’s view of it mirrored my own (as with Highgrove) and included an acknowledgement that to understand and appreciate the garden you had to understand its references and acknowledge that it is deeply autobiographical and quite unique. Richardson describes it as “quite a disorienting garden, being in it is like getting lost in a mansion devised by Lewis Carroll” – this made me laugh as its so true. Richardson accepts that this is a garden many dislike “the relentless autobiographical focus of this garden as proved repugnant to some” but argues that we should be more open minded “surely it’s far better to be original in a garden than..almost anthing at all, in the fraught, authoritarian, conformist and class-conscious world of British horticulture.” Hoorah I say!
These two articles showed me that the book was an honest, intelligent and intellectual consideration of the gardens which made a refreshing change. The rest of the gardens are wide ranging – there are gardens which feature the mass of grasses and New Perennial style such as Mount St John and Trentham, both designs by Tom Stuart-Smith – these are seen as pictorial gardens. Then there are more intimate spaces where you become immersed in the planting such as Cottesbrooke and Temple Guiting (James Alexander-Sinclair and Jinny Bloom respectively). Gardens incorporating more symbolic sculpture are included and I wonder if this is a style which relates back to the landscape gardens of the 18th century – Througham Court and Plaz Metaxu both fall into this category and are both created by their owners. I was particularly taken with the article on Plaz Metaxu created by Alasdair Forbes, his approach (see quote at start of post) mirrors the way my own approach to visiting gardens is going.
There are well known gardens including Great Dixter and Gresgarth but also strangely, to me, the Olympic Park and the Living Wall, Atheanaeum Hotel which I would not consider gardens but then you get into a whole discussion on what is considered a garden.
When I first looked at the book I was disappointed to see that there was no information about visiting the gardens or even specific information about where they were located. However, having spent a couple of evenings dipping into The New English Garden it is clear that this is not a garden visiting guide instead it is a consideration of the best and most interesting gardens created in the last decade. It ways up the pros and cons of the gardens, comments on their context and their makers. I would love to see garden articles more in this style in the glossies but maybe that is just wishful thinking.
Disclaimer: I was provided with a free copy of the book to review by Frances Lincoln.