“‘A Veritable Eden’ The Manchester Botanic Garden: a History” by Ann Brooks. Reviewed by Carl Legge

May 16, 2011

in Book Reviews, Reviews

Another book review: thinkingardens has made it on to the publishers’ lists. So with thanks to a new contributor, Carl Legge, we introduce the Botanic Garden you have never heard of before. How many more will vanish in a similar sad fashion?

Anne Wareham, editor

A Veritable Eden cover,  copyright Carl Legge

Ann Brooks describes the decline and fall of the Manchester Botanic Garden. It was once ‘Patronised by Royalty’, now only a few architectural features remain in the modern landscape. It is a tale worthy of modern social or political drama: full of personal intruigues & rivalry, financial mismanagement & missed opportunities.

Potentially a good tale, but will the thinkinGardens reader find it of interest?

I think only in parts. In telling the story, Brooks puts the phenomena of subscription botanical gardens into their social and economic context.

The thinkinGardens Manifesto says that in the 19th Century:

“Garden-makers became fixated on the skills of cultivation, and rarity, and how plants were displayed.”
In her Chapter ‘Art Triumphed Over Nature 1857’ Brooks describes the historical reality of this in Manchester.

The Botanic Garden came to an arrangement with the promoters of the Art-Treasures Exhibition of the United Kingdom in 1857 who were on an adjacent site. The Botanic Garden arranged special displays at considerable expense to be complementary to the Exhibition. They also undertook works so they were physically linked. In a short passage dealing with garden history, Brooks argues that gardening itself was thought of as an artistic activity meaning that the Garden’s subscribers would think the alliance natural. More prosaically, she describes the ulterior motive (not achieved) of solving the Garden’s financial problems. In part, the lack of success was due, Brooks suggests, because the upper middle classes valued the overt ‘art’ of the exhibition more than the displays of the Garden as they moved themselves to the ‘Villa Gardening’of the growing suburbs.

Throughout the book, there are frequent references to the elitism of the subscribers and their wish to keep the lower classes from the garden. Change is visible as the rise of trade & commericalism increases the economic power and social influence of the middle classes. Brooks discusses the interesting position of women, who were actually (amazingly) able to become subscribers because a legal nicety meant that they would not be property owners. (Don’t ask! ed) The fortunes of the Garden are, in part, influenced by larger economic trends and incidents such as the Cotton Famine.

A Veritable Eden pages copyright Carl Legge

To this extent, the book is an insight into the place of the Gardens in its contemporary society and its relationship to the arts. ThinkinGardens readers might find this a bit thin for the cover price of £25 and 150 pages plus appendices. For the specialist in this subject matter or geographical region, I can see the potential value.

It appears well researched and carefully annotated. In the later chapters, there are interesting pictures and plans of how the gardens looked. The writing flows well and is an example of crisp academic writing. I’m surprised, for a book apparently aimed at an enthusiast/academic audience, that there is no index. It certainly made understanding the book by checking previous & subsequent references to details much more difficult.

In my view, there are other issues with the book that mean that only the enthusiast would find it a good purchase.

It seems to me that two aspects in particular and one in general about the organisation and design of the book in some of the early Chapters get in the way of the narrative:

The first is the use of ‘Asides’ to the main narrative. These are boxed out pieces of text out of the flow of the main narrative. In the later chapters they are very relevant (for example a biography of the curator in the period under study) and have been well positioned in the main text. Not so in some of the first chapters where they interupt the narrative unhelpfully. Also, there is a howler of a typo in the headline of one of the Asides where ‘Curator’ is misspelt.

The second is the choice of pictures in the first part of the book. In the later part of the book it is easy to see the relevance of the pictures to the narrative. The pictures help to illustrate the story. Not so in the first part of the book where pictures are used which do not always bear relevance to the text. One example is pictures of the Manchester Lunatic Asylum & Town Hall from 1832 in the Chapter dealing with Manchester in 1822.

More generally, only the later part of the book is chronological. In the early chapters there is a a mixed chronological/themed approach which I feel gets in the way of the early narrative. The themes (eg membership, staffing, design) were important to include as they help with understanding the wider context. I think this could have been achieved more elegantly by taking a different approach to the way the book is organised.

So I think this is a great reference for those interested in Manchester and its history or the development of Botanic Gardens more generally. Perhaps not for most thinkinGardens readers.

Carl Legge

A surprising –  Blog

‘A Veritable Eden’ published by Windgather Press


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