Here is a review of the winner of a Garden Media Guild Awards ‘Inspirational Book of the Year.’
I know it was the winner because Marianne Majerus and I judged them.
O, and for certain characters who asked about the inclusions elsewhere – Veddw is in Wales, not England. Not that it would necessarily have been included.
So now you want to know whether to buy The New English Garden for someone for a birthday? Or even read an interesting and challenging review of it?
Anne Wareham, editor
(the pictures do not do justice to the ones in the book and are just my feeble attempt to illustrate.)
I approach a book by Tim Richardson with keen anticipation. He is an interesting and informed writer who has championed both garden criticism and the thoughtful assessment of gardens as an art form. Unfortunately for Richardson, the format of a garden book does not lend itself easily to fulfilling my expectations. So let’s start with the format.
This is a beautiful and glossy book, packed with photographs of gardens and of plants. The pages of photographs are at least as many as those of words, and it is easy to forget the words and concentrate on the pictures. I found myself wondering which mattered more and whether the photographs illustrated, complemented, or had nothing to do with the text. I have a horrid suspicion that most readers will look at the photos, read the captions and avoid the main text. I also found myself worrying about how the photographs enabled me to experience the garden.
If we are to think of gardens as an expression of an art form, as I think Richardson would like us to, and indeed as I would like to, then the images need to support my ability to see how the garden does this. I’m not sure that they do. Many of the images are gorgeous, colourful, even powerful. Are they what I would see as a visitor to this particular new English garden? Take Great Dixter. The first picture is of the Long Border. I think yes, that could be a sense of the garden I experience.
The second picture is of a meadow but I suspect that the camera is at ankle height, which does not tell me what the garden is like for human visitors.
The third picture is (I guess) from an upstairs window.
What is it telling me about the shape, form and purpose of the garden? My suspicion is that the pictures were selected separately from the text and selected for their intrinsic attractiveness as images, not for what they tell me about the garden. (see Veddw blog – go to comments for Noel’s interesting new theory about this. Ed.).
So actually we have two books. One book is a set of attractive images of a number of gardens, nicely and interestingly captioned.
This can be inspiring. Both great images and attractive combinations can soothe misery, inspire future efforts, and spark imaginative reconstruction about what it might be like, for example, to enjoy the Olympic Park at its height if you didn’t. However, the title of this book is not ‘Great Images of Interesting Gardens’. Perhaps that wouldn’t sell. Actually it probably would, but no matter, since the actual title is ‘The New English Garden’. So now the words do matter and we need to know something about what this book is about. I tried to read the words while ignoring the pictures – a hard task – to try and pick out the themes of the ‘new Englishness’.
The Introduction sets the scene and describes the focus as ‘innovative gardens made or remade during the past decade’. The other theme is identified as ‘the trend to a more naturalistic approach to garden-making’. This is certainly true. One could almost say that the book illustrates how the flower border has transmogrified into the river of grasses, and the ‘group of 3’ into the wave of goodness knows how many. That probably does tell us something about the new English garden and it also tells us something about the designers who have created it. There’s a roll call of most of the current crop of winning designers here – Pearson, Stuart-Smith, Oudolf, Keen and Golby, Lloyd and Garret, Bradley-Hole, Blanc, Maynard, the Sheffield School, Blom, the Bannermans, Lennox-Boyd.
Not all of these are fixated by grasses, but perhaps they all generate a style which is ‘immersive, not pictorial’ to quote the text on Cottesbrooke Hall (Alexander-Sinclair and Maynard). The legacy of Jekyll and Hidcote and the Arts and Crafts movement is referenced fairly frequently, with Dan Pearson quoted as taking Hidcote as inspiration at Armscote Manor. Take rooms and borders, twist and shake, add a new plant palette and create a new sensibility with smoother edges and more rounded forms.
So far so good, and the text does describe how the ‘new’ English garden has evolved from the ‘old’ English garden. It is perhaps a pity that Richardson refers us to his book on the twentieth century garden but only gives us a brief hint of his take on what the ‘old’ English garden meant by telling us that ‘the 1990s marked the end of a floriferous road’ which had been developing for a hundred years. However, the descriptions, while sometimes over lengthy, do give a flavour of changing planting styles, from ‘hotting up a border to furnace heat’, to colour contrasts even Lloyd would have baulked at, alongside the rivers of grasses and the establishment of meadows, prairies and rivers.
And yet, this star studded list is leavened by a more eccentric set, including some owner gardeners and professionals whose names are less familiar. This creates a tension because it is not at all clear that all of these gardens fit the description outlined above and the story line becomes more confused.
Moreover, there is no obvious rhyme or reason to the ordering of the gardens. Througham Court, an owner gardener’s scientific conceptual creation, is sandwiched between Great Dixter and Bradley-Hole’s work at Crockmore House. Why? Perhaps I should not waste time worrying about this, but a search for what is meant by the new English garden does raise the issue. If there is a theme to the differences between the ‘designer set’ and the rest, it seems to be that the rest have more objects, concepts, and fewer plants. This is not totally true – Gina Price at Pettifers fits with the designer set, while Keith Wiley at Wildside is closer to the Sheffield school (and eccentric).
English eccentricity is of course nothing new; we like to celebrate it as part of the national character, so it is hard to know what ‘new English eccentricity’ might look like. It seems to be represented here by the Prince of Wales and Sir Roy Strong. The piece about Highgrove also references the Laskett, and describes them as ‘a rural manifestation of post-modernism’, which in turn references Laura Ashley and the 1980s.
While Richardson acknowledges that such gardens can descend into kitsch, artifice, and expense, he also suggests that these gardens have merit and charm. I find it hard to see how either of these gardens fits the bill here. Highgrove is ‘new’ because important new elements are added to it every few months or so – but equally lacks a personality. The Laskett on the other hand is awash with personality, that of its surviving creator. Richardson’s defence of this garden is on the grounds of its eccentricity, its connection to its owners’ lives and its originality. Is originality a theme of the new English garden? It does not appear as such in the introduction and is as easily a term of abuse as of compliment.
Beyond the eccentric sit a group of gardens which are perhaps the ones I most want to visit in order to understand their concepts. The Wirtzes design for the Rothschilds at Ascott looks fascinating but there isn’t much written here about it except that it is a surprise and a delight. Carter at Tilbury Hall is a garden of ‘neo-rococo exuberance’, and I really don’t know what this means. The description, and yes the images, look quite austere and formal, more neo-classical than neo-rococo. Both these gardens and that at Througham Court seem to be themed, conceptual, and coherent, even if they don’t obviously fit either the new plantsmanship thread or the eccentric and individual thread. English gardens that are new, perhaps, rather than ‘New English Gardens’.
Richardson states at the end of the introduction that the level of horticultural and aesthetic sophistication is higher now than it has been for three hundred years. This is a strong claim, he tantalises us by suggesting that there are five gardens in the making to meet this challenge. What is less clear is whether he thinks any of the gardens he describes here meet this criterion and if so, which.
Reflecting on this book, a sophisticated garden would need to show conceptual clarity, originality and individuality, and good plantsmanship. It would also need to work in all seasons and in all lights. No mean challenge. No photographic images will answer the question of whether these gardens meet the challenge, and Richardson does not answer it either. The gardens chosen here seem to reflect a few themes in ‘new’ gardens, and I have had fun trying to tease them out – intellectual exercise is good for you after all.
However, I remain unsatisfied (not the same as dissatisfied). If these are ‘new English gardens’ in the sense of new gardens in England, this is fine but it takes me back to the first version of the book in giving me interesting images of some interesting gardens. No judgement is required of the overall quality of the garden or its place in garden-making development as an art form.
If these are gardens which develop the English garden tradition, or break the floriferous mould or whatever, then the themes need to be developed more clearly and clearer judgements made about what is taking the tradition forward and what is not. Moreover, gardens which take forward the English tradition need not be in England either, although I can see a geographical limitation makes the image making and visiting a lot easier.
On balance, great images from Lawson (and two women who don’t make the front cover), and text which has provoked some thought. It doesn’t answer the question of what makes the new English garden distinctive or special, but does describe some interesting gardens, as well as some which are perhaps more eccentric than they are distinctive.
See also what it was like judging the award here.