Here is a second second review of this book, in this case by Bridget Rosewell OBE.
What are Gardens for? Visiting, Experiencing and Thinking about Gardens
Don’t expect an answer to the question of the title, because if you do you won’t enjoy this book. Instead focus on the sub title and you will get insights, surprises and food for thought. I had to go back and start this book again, having been gagging for an answer to the question, before I could really enjoy it. Indeed, this book convinces me there isn’t an answer – or at least not one answer on a global scale. Gardens are in fact for many things and many purposes and operate at different levels in different cultures. Compare and contrast doesn’t work unless and until you have set the terms of reference.
Rory Stuart is, of course, well placed to create a global garden vision if anyone can. Here he considers how to visit and to critique gardens, followed by chapters on taste, style and atmosphere, finishing up with ten best gardens and ten best garden moments. The gardens and garden moments range across the globe and from the Taj Mahal to Hidcote. This made me think about how I might compare the experience of watching dawn rise over the Taj Mahal with enjoying light and shade at Snowshill in the Cotswolds – I have done the latter but not the former. They must both be emotional, resonant experiences, outdoors, happening only in real time. Unlike, therefore, an emotional, resonant response to a picture or a play which are indoors, repeatable. But all such experiences must be about the way in which the hairs might rise on the back of your neck. The tremble as the music reaches a climax, the film shocks, the picture grabs you.
Such moments must pass, as Stuart points out with a quotation from Kenneth Clark that ‘one cannot enjoy a pure aesthetic sensation for longer than one can enjoy the smell of an orange, which in my case is less than two minutes’. Actually I’m not sure I would last even that long.
So perhaps the garden is for the chance to experience such moments, which must be ephemeral and which won’t happen every time. In trying to explore this difficult subject, Stuart spends one chapter on critiquing three gardens, East Ruston, Alnwick and the Veddw. Each of these describes the garden, their contexts and gives some sense of what they are trying to do. It is pretty clear from the review that it is likely to be hard to get an emotional, resonant experience at Alnwick. I’m not sure here about East Ruston and the difficulty for this reviewer in assessing this potential from the review of the Veddw is that I know from personal experience that it is possible. Sitting in front of the reflecting pool is just such a place in which the hairs can rise.
But these experiences cannot happen in a vacuum. Equally they may happen in natural environments. The Victorian craving for the picturesque, for crags, rocks and mountains, was a search for such moments elsewhere than in gardens. Stuart describes the garden of Wang Shi Yuan in Suzhou in China as an utterly satisfying garden and one which includes crags, rocks and mountains but in miniature. This recreation of the natural on a different scale, and to different effect appears to address the same desires but in a very different manner and a different context. The context provides the frame of reference, and the frame of reference conditions the reactions that different people might have.
If I visit the Taj Mahal, or a Chinese or Japanese garden, I come to them with my Western education and sensibility. I come to them with my rationalist enlightenment perspective, with my impatience and my desire to interfere, as well as my ignorance of the terms of reference in which they have been constructed. My reaction must be different. What do Chinese scholars make of Italian gardens, I wonder, or of the English large scale landscapes? Is the response to light and shade and outdoors experience actually rather similar across all people? I suspect it might be. If I am right, then our cultures differ in the way in which we imagine our control over our natural environment, but our need to have a response to that environment is universal.
Rory Stuart’s global reach and long experience have been distilled in this book not to give easy glib answers but rather to make us think about how and why we react to the spaces that we call gardens. It’s not an easy book, though it is easy to read, and I suspect it will repay re-reading in due course. Gardens are worlds of imagination. Sometimes imagination is impoverished, repetitive, governed by fashion. None of Stuart’s ten best gardens are new, and most are no longer in the hands of their creators. Does that mean that our modern world is too fashion driven to generate great imagination? I don’t think so, but it certainly makes it more difficult.
Finally, it is worth reflecting on the physical book itself. It is book sized, not coffee table. It is a book for reading not for pictures. There are pictures, but they are not well reproduced nor always very good. Since, however, this is a book about ideas, about imagination, and about the garden moment, this is the right way to do things. I can pick up the book and read it without breaking my wrists, and it would be fine on the Kindle too.