Gardens Of The World-The Great Traditions by Rory Stuart reviewed by Sara Venn

May 2, 2011

in Book Reviews, Reviews


Gardens of the World - The Great Traditions by Rory Stuart.

Gardens Of The World – The Great Traditions, is difficult book to review as its interest to the reader will depend upon what they expect from the book. Stuart covers a huge range of histories and garden styles, all of which will be familiar in part to anyone with an interest in gardening and garden design and many of which are regularly used by both designers and the keen amateur as a starting point to a design. Beginning with the traditions of Islamic gardens the reader is taken through the garden design traditions of China and Japan, Italy, English landscape movement, English flower gardens and then onto the more recent American gardens and the designs in them which are showing as new traditions within a long founded school.


The issue with this is that the subjects of each of these chapters have been written about frequently before, in far greater detail and within the histories of the lands in which they took place. This is no criticism of Stuart, as his prose is well written and interesting, but I, for one, was looking for greater insight and unfortunately it was not there.


Perhaps, in a work such as this it may have been preferable to pick up on one garden from each period within the design tradition being discussed, and concentrating on that, rather than trying to discuss as many gardens within that tradition as possible. Had that been done the layout of the book may have been easier to work with, as in many cases the photographs of the garden in discussion are not on the same page, making it very difficult to keep the images in mind whilst reading the description and history of the garden.


However, I doubt that Stuart, with his background as a garden historian, designer and author, meant this to be a full history of all these traditions. Which then asks the question is this book aimed at? There is no doubt that there are some stunning images used throughout the book illustrating the tradition being discussed beautifully, although I do have to reprimand the use of the photo of Yu Yuan on page 73  along with a couple of others, which look like my grandmothers’ holiday shots! Generally however, they are  excellent and illustrate the  design tradition of that chapter as well as the prose. By the end of each chapter the reader new to garden history should certainly be capable of recognising the gardens of each era and begin to recognise the influence of that era on subsequent design traditions.


With the sad demise of funding for garden history as an academic choice in higher education, a book which shows in such illustrations the stunning range of background histories there are and the way in which they have been influenced by the political and cultural activities of that period has to be commended. If gardens in the UK are to continue to inspire, it is vital to the whole industry that people are made aware of the complexities of garden design and how important it is to have some knowledge of what has come before and who has influenced both the designers and the movements of the past. Without reading very much of the prose, by studying the photographs it is quite obvious that, for example, the English Landscape Movement  was greatly influenced by Italianate gardens, and so, hopefully, encourage further interest from the reader, and pull them into the written part of the book, possibly leading to further interest in garden history.


So again I ask who this book is aimed at? There is no doubt that it would be a stunning coffee table book for those with an interest in gardens or perhaps for someone taking on the challenge of designing their own garden and wishing to look for influences and ideas. It certainly would help to solidify in the mind not only definite likes in design history, but also those things that the individual may want to avoid which can be just as vital in a successful design.


However, perhaps its best asset is that it covers garden history from its earliest forms in the Islamic traditions and its gardens, through to the American garden designs of recent days and the gardens that have been created through that movement. It may not cover all of these in the detail that academic study would require, but it would encourage anyone with an interest in gardens and their history to delve further into the areas which interest them within the book and study them further. With this in mind the bibliography at the back of the book lists sources used by the author, but many of which would be good follow on reads for those with an interest in a particular era.


Regardless of who it is actually aimed at, I believe this book would be an excellent choice for anyone showing an interest in any form of gardening or horticulture. It proves that however much of a plantsperson one claims to be, there is a necessity for design with a garden, however vague that design may actually appear to be; and that the majority of gardens of note throughout the world follow these traditions in one way or another, making them the success they are. So in conclusion, please buy this book for people so that garden history and its cultural importance is not lost but encouraged.

Sara Venn


Rory Stuart – see also a piece by Stephen Fry and Rory’s latest book ‘What are Gardens For?’




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