Paradise Gardens by Toby Musgrave, reviewed by Tristan Gregory

December 10, 2015

in Book Reviews, Reviews

Well, it’s getting near to Christmas and you’re still not sure what you want for Christmas. You have your own copy of Outwitting Squirrels and half a dozen extra copies for various stockings and for that emergency when someone gives you a totally unexpected present. You’ve a long wait for Anne’s next book (Yes, it’s on its way)…..

So now you’d like something meaty and garden focused to read in the peace of Boxing Day- is this it?

Anne Wareham, editor

Anne Wareham Portrait, copyright John Kingdon

Anne Wareham






Paradise Gardens: Spiritual Inspiration and Earthly Expressions by Toby Musgrave (Frances Lincoln, £30)

Tristan Gregory:

Paradise Gardens – Spiritual Inspiration and Earthly Expression is more than just the title of the book, it is a hypothesis which Dr Musgrave uses this beautifully presented book to prove. It is timely too, as we struggle to convince people today of gardening’s status as an art form, to be reminded that it has for thousands of years meant so much more.  Gardens were one of the means by which society’s most powerful, be they kings or priests, proved their right to govern by moulding their earthly dominions into visions of the divine.  They were also the stages upon which those of substance sought to demonstrate their suitability for advancement, through displays of wealth and cultural proficiency.

The book begins its assertion of gardening’s greatness with the ancient and classical civilisations of Europe and the Near/Middle East, before moving to the medieval period and Renaissance. It is the length of the time frames and reference to cultures which we feel to be distant and foreign that makes the references to the spiritual motives for grand horticultural exploits such convincing buttresses to the author’s argument.

When the book moved further afield to the Far East, the Hindu and Buddhist civilisations of South Asia and even to Mesoamerica, it is fair to say that I had got the message. I was entirely unable to disagree. Though when it moved further on to more contemporary expressions of reverence for the natural world, the “how to” guide to tree-hugging (while tongue in cheek,) felt a little out of place alongside the magnitude of so much of this book.

 © Peter Eastland / Alamy Stock Photo

There are books of this kind which seek to build bridges between cultures by identifying cultural cross-pollination –  an example being the influence on the English Landscape garden of Chinese imperial parks, via priests and diplomats. I would have liked to see these explored in the book but I am a realist and can accept that any such attempt would have made the book impossibly complicated.

I learned a good deal from this book. But then there are two sorts of learning: sometimes you do it on purpose and at other times you learn by accident. In the case of this book it was a case of learning on purpose. There is a huge amount of information here and it covers areas that I was both pleased to see in decent detail, such as Far Eastern garden traditions, and others that I had never even considered. The pleasure grounds of Mesoamerica had never previously crossed my mind. Though in this particular case my enthusiasm for these was tempered by the use they were put to. I doubt that child sacrifice will become a major Chelsea theme any time soon.

© Ivan Vdovin / Alamy Stock Photo

In the detail, though, lives the devil and this is a work that one sits down and gets to grips with. Rather than drawing you quietly down the avenues of its arguments to the glades of revelation you will find yourself orienteering from point to well researched point, with too little time in some places to really appreciate the journey. But there are some rather long, bleak moorland legs thrown in to keep it all bracing and worthy.

I think the detail we see is a mere fraction of what was assembled in preparation, and that the editing process risked undermining the author’s confidence in the quality of the academic argument. So sadly the chance to include a little more lightness and levity was passed up.

There is an idea in some academic circles that the purity of a work is degraded if the character of the author shines through too clearly – the fear being that you may be either persuaded without proof or dissuaded by prejudice if you actually get to know the author through expressions of wit or humour. My complaint is that I would have liked a more approachable guide to help me.

Paradise Gardens is an admirable piece of work which Toby Musgrave should be proud of, but from my point of view it is prevented from being more valuable to those who bang the drum for horticulture by its academic density.

I would have the whole world know that our perception of what is beautiful and what is divine is based on high tides of horticultural innovation which have risen and retreated over the millennia. And that the images in our minds of our reward for a good Christian life are partly the result of the exploits of men and women with their hands in the soil working to fulfill the spiritual and aesthetic aspirations of others.

Tristan Gregory

Head gardener at Kentchurch Court

If you liked that, you may also like this – The cost of a garden,

Or this – A review of Garden Magic by George Carter

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