The full title of the book under review here is “Gardens in History, a political perspective” and it reminds us once again that gardens have always been for more than gardening. Thanks to Tristan for this excellent review.
Anne Wareham, editor
Gardens in History is a book written to emphasise the importance of gardens as tools for those with political power to demonstrate their technical expertise, philosophical enlightenment, public generosity and social standing. Furthermore particular styles and gardening philosophies have been used to legitimise the creator by linking them to generations and even ages past. From the ancient world up to the present day that relationship with power has elevated gardening from a means to feed oneself and one’s family to a high art form full of structured complexity and messages, whose full meaning is only clear to those who have been properly schooled.
To emphasise: this is a book about gardens, not gardening. By keeping a healthy distance from the how and focussing on the why it offers a philosophical link between the attempts of the first settled civilisations, or at least their leaders, to create paradise in the midst of wilderness and barbarism and our own attempts to create a buffer between ourselves and a world too complicated to fully relate to.
The running theme throughout the book is that as a civilisation reaches a new equilibrium a manner of gardening emerges to suit the new political reality. Examples given are the development of conspicuous imperial gardens and palaces in the centre of Rome as republican principles gave way to the autocratic rule of the emperors. The gardens of the Ottoman Sultans were structured in such a way that they could withdraw away from public areas into private gardens at the centre. By segregating themselves from both the ordinary people and the nobility they were able to find the peace to govern as absolute rulers.
Fast-forward a few centuries and the reality of urbanisation, democracy’s increasing scope in Britain and the example of violent changes in Europe was the spur to protect public spaces and create metropolitan parks in order to divert the masses from the revolutionary road. Importantly, though, it is also suggested that when gardens become an indulgence of the powerful, rather than a political tool employed by them, then that particular regime’s days are numbered.
The book is especially good when covering the development of the British landscape garden and the emergence of the picturesque movement – for the very good reason that the source material available, in particular the words of contemporary figures, is plentiful. In these chapters the use of quotations and references to familiar places brings the subject to life. I also enjoyed the chapter concerning the development of Japanese gardens if only to note how differently the development of landscape gardening progressed in Japan and Britain given that the inspiration for both was China.
Other chapters, in particular that dealing with gardens in the ancient world, while interesting felt a little educational at times. Though the absence of first-hand accounts and discussions about the early gardens of Mesopotamia can hardly be laid at the author’s door. Louise Wickham’s decision to end each chapter with a case study of a specific garden has, in my opinion at least, given the book as a whole a sense of cohesion that may not have been achieved otherwise.
My only two real criticisms were the presence of occasional grammatical flaws, though these do not compromise the book in any significant way, and the lack of a chapter on Chinese gardening. The latter is due to my current ignorance on the subject and desire to learn more, especially with regard to our own “English Style” of gardening.
This is a work of particular value to those of us coming to the subject of garden history as a means of developing our understanding of the gardens we work in, work on and visit and how the styles we adopt and admire came to exist in the first place. The emphasis on a political perspective in the title runs the risk of the potential reader making unhelpful parallels with our own sort of politics where gardening features only in MP’s expense claims, moats and duck houses.