Great Gardens of Britain
Photographs by Alex Ramsay
London: Frances Lincoln, 2011
Hardcover. 144 pp. ISBN 978-0711231344. £16.99
Reviewed by Laurent Châtel
This is not Helena Attlee’s first book – she covered Portugal and Italy widely before turning to Britain. As she explains in her introduction, her objective was to focus on 20 gardens out of 4000 currently opened to the public across Britain. It was a great idea to avoid both a chronological presentation (now deemed passé in garden history) and a national narrative – choosing instead to highlight instead the ‘diversity’ of British creativity (‘encompassing an enormous range of styles from many different periods’ ), and thus allowing for a greater regional awareness (2 gardens in Cornwall, 2 gardens in Wales, 11 ‘English’ gardens, 4 Scottish gardens, and 1 garden in Northern Ireland). The distribution clearly favours ‘England’ though, and Southern England, with 9 gardens, totalling 45 percent of the book. Disappointing, too, is the introduction which does not spell out the criteria that justify her singling out of these 20 gardens. Instead the introduction falls prey to the style of ‘coffee table books’ by simply mentioning en passant the reasons for keeping such and such garden. Climate is one element she takes into account. Topography, another. Excellence and fame being the last ones. Again this choice takes the book closer to coffee table garden books than to up-to-date research as the emphasis now ought to be on those ‘obscure or lesser-known gardens’, which the author precisely chooses to exclude. Included is an Internet list to the ‘places to visit’ but no bibliography (she does not even refer to articulate gardener Crowder’s 2005 book, The Garden at Levens, Winner of the Lakeland Book of the Year in the section on ‘Levens’).
Having said that, the book is beautiful, with outstanding photographs by Alex Ramsay and very clever insights and inroads, a flavour of which I would like to give in the next few lines by referring to her account of five gardens – The Garden of Cosmic Speculation (I), Anlwick (II), Levens Hall (III), Scampston (IV), Stourhead (V). The large format photographs convey a lively and faithful idea of the garden, and are a most powerful visual tool. The text is a homage to the work of gardeners, be it the original ones – Guillaume Beaumont (III), Richard Hoare (V), Oudolph (IV) – or the present ones (Chris Crowder, the head gardener of Levens (III), Maggie Keswick and then Charles Jencks (I). Throughout the book, she is very attentive to the way garden owners have kept up the nation’s (and tourists’) interest in their gardens – her sensitivity to planting schemes and specific flowers partakes of the general assessment she conducts, pinning down the reasons for the high appeal still prevalent for such and such garden. She gives an excellent account of Anlwick, explaining how and why £42 million were spent on ‘updating’ the garden and brings out the work of Belgian landscape designers Jacques and Peter Wirtz as well as British water sculptor William Pye, pointing to the role of technology and science for the relevance of garden art today. Itis an enlightening illustration of gardens as an entertainment industry.
Although the historical layer in the book is slim, Helena Attlee always pays her respects to the ‘origin of the design’ by giving a potted history – all too brief but always correct and to the point – of the genealogy of the garden. For Stourhead, her words are apt: ‘foothold in antiquity’, ‘a path much given to meander and delay’ . But what might have been expected considering the short selection of gardens is a system of cross-references and echoes between gardens. For instance, although she refers to the mount at ‘Scampston’ , she does not connect it with The Garden of Cosmic Speculation or Stourhead’s hillock with its Temple on Apollo; she might also have connected the way water is led down a rill to a pool with a mention of Rousham, thus making structural parallels between places. All in all, however, this provides a wonderful visual introduction to the breadth of achievements in gardens across the nation.
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