Category Archives: Book reviews

Capability Brown in Kent – book review by Tom Turner

Capability Brown in Kent, published by the Kent Gardens Trust, is available from Amazon

Capability Brown in Kent, published by the Kent Gardens Trust, is available from Amazon

Congratulations to Kent Gardens Trust for producing a book on Lancelot Capability Brown’s work in Kent. Despite there being little of his work in Kent, the content is interesting and the book is very nicely produced. I particularly commend the editors for their use of plans. Far too many ‘garden history’ books make no use of plans. Instead, they use long descriptions of garden designs that are hard to read and must have been difficult to write. Using plans is so much better. They can be understood at a glance and they let the reader make comparisons between what the designer intended, shown on historical plans, and the present condition of the gardens. The present day plans in this book (by Liz Logan and Rowan Blaik) were done using OpenData from the Ordnance  Survey. It is great that the OS allows their data to be used in this way – I wish Google and Bing allowed satellite maps to be used in a similar fashion. There is much to be learned from air photography.

The gardens analysed in the book are:

  • Ingress
  • Leeds Abbey
  • Valence
  • Chilham Castle
  • North Cray Place

As the editors state, they were relatively small-scale projects. Yet ‘though they may not be amongst the most significant, but they do provide some highly valuable insights which help broaden our understanding of his work’. As a contribution to Brown scholarship, this book makes a most-welcome advance with its use of contours on plans. Brown had no effective way of representing landform on his own plans despite it being one of his main design considerations. This is one of the factors which make his own drawings both puzzling and disappointing.

It would be good if the detailed research in this book could be used to restore some of Brown’s Kentish planting.

The 1857 estate map shows a recognisably Brownian design, with the design concept much more intelligible when seen with the contours on the Kent Gardens Trust Map (right)

The 1857 estate map shows a recognisably Brownian design, with the design concept much more intelligible when seen with the contours on the Kent Gardens Trust Map (right)

Tim Richardson Oxford College Gardens – book review by Tom Turner

Oxford College Gardens

Oxford Colleges have plumped for the National Trust Style of Planting design (right) and are lucky to have excellent gardeners (left)

Tim Richardson  (Author), Andrew Lawson (Photographer) Oxford College Gardens  Frances Lincoln 2015 ISBN-13: 978-0711232181

Tim Richardson’s text is excellent.  Andrew Lawson’s photographs are excellent. Tim is the best informed and most readable of contemporary British garden historians. Andrew is a technically skilled photographer with artistic talent. Working together, they have given us a biography and portrait of Oxford’s colleges and their gardens.

Oxford College gardeners have done a great job too, century after century, and Tim does them justice. But from my standpoint they are too fashion conscious and too determined to make the college gardens look as though they belonged to the National Trust. Modern additions would be welcome but more historical traditions could have been conserved.

Plans of All Souls College Garden, Oxford

Plans of All Souls College Gardens. The new plan (left) has no information on planting design. But the 1598 plan (right) is rich in information.

I have three criticisms of the book. First, there is a lack of integration between the text and the illustrations.  Too many of the photographs were taken ‘in the garden’ rather than ‘of the garden’. They therefore fail to illustrate interesting points which the author has made.

A second criticism concerns the specially drawn plans. Plans are very welcome and I wish garden writers made more use of them. But this set of plans does not show the planting which everyone agrees to be a key feature of gardens – and many see as their defining feature. No trees, no shrubs, no hedges, no herbaceous plants. The plans only show buildings, water, paving and a green tone which might be grass. Future historians could have been very grateful for information about the planting design.

A third criticism is the lack of historical illustrations. There are a few – but there are far too few. Oxford is particularly rich in drawings, paintings, engravings and photographs. It would be great to see more of them. For example: p.35 refers to David Loggan’s engraving of Balliol. It is freely available on the web but it is not in the book; p.51 refers to Loggans drawing of Christ Church showing parterres.

One of its most enjoyable aspects is the balance between comment on the colleges and on their gardens. I knew little of the separate histories of the colleges and found that, as well as being of great interest, they helped me make sense of the gardens. Perhaps the title should have been Oxford Colleges and their gardens. A good map shows the locations of the colleges but there are no details of opening times.

Let me conclude by saying again: I really enjoyed reading the text and looking at the pictures.

Tivoli Companion,Tim Cawkwell – book review by Tom Turner

A Tivoli Companion Tim Cawkwell

A Tivoli Companion Tim Cawkwell

Tim Cawkwell’s 78-page book Tivoli Companion is, scholarly, enjoyable and puzzling in equal measure. The puzzle, for a reviewer, is the intended audience. I guess I know more about Tivoli than most general readers but a good deal less than those with specialist knowledge of Italian garden history. So perhaps the guide was written for people like me. But, are there many other people like me with an in-between knowledge of Tivoli?
The title A Tivoli Companion is well-chosen, reminding one of Georgina Masson’s Companion Guide to Rome. The Introduction is explicit that ‘this is not a guidebook that will tell you where to stay and what to eat’ but also states that ‘Tivoli is a rich enough place to have its own guidebook’. So is it a ‘guidebook’? Not really. The contents page identifies the main section of the text as an ‘Essay’ and this is the truth of the matter. It is akin to an extended magazine article. About half the text is about Tivoli’s three famous gardens: Hadrian’s Villa, the Villa d’Este and the Parco Villa Gregoriana, with their history and character dealt with rather glancingly. The author’s photographs tell us more but not as much as they could have done with more consistent and informative captioning. The book has only one plan. Hand-drawn and with almost unreadable labelling. But the information is useful and interesting: ‘Tivoli and R. Ariene in 17th century showing channel dug under the town to the NE corner of Villa d’Este’.
Just possibly, the puzzling aspect of the Companion is explained by the information about the author on p.78. Most of his writing has been about cinema. His literary approach is filmic. I am pretty confident that Calkwell’s Companion is, to date, the most extensive discussion of Tivoli’s graffiti in the English language,

A Tivoli Companion Tim Cawkwell CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform (2015)

The Gardens of Fletcher Steele, Priscilla Elliott – book review by Tom Turner

The Gardens of Fletcher Steele by Priscilla Elliott

The Gardens of Fletcher Steele by Priscilla Elliott

I opened this short book with some puzzlement, wondering why the author wrote it when a longer book had been published in 1989 and revised in 2003 (Fletcher Steele, Landscape Architect: An Account of the Gardenmaker’s Life, 1885-1971 Robin S. Karson). Elliott must surely have read Karson’s book but does not list it in her bibliography.
The explanation of Elliott’s approach lies in her title: her focuses is on the gardens Steele designed. They are explained with quotations from his letters and grainy old sepia photographs from the Library of Congress Archive.
Fletcher Steele’s career has parallels with that of Thomas Mawson (1861-1933). He was born 28 years after Mawson and the comparison is interesting. Both were strongly influenced by the Arts and Crafts movement and by its transformation into another Italian revival. In terms of design quality, the work of both men was less-inspired than the work of Jekyll and Lutyens. But in one respect Steel’s work is more interesting and important than Mawsons. Steele was interested in the modern world and keen to draw upon them. Mawson ridiculed the Art Nouveau style. Steele was attracted by the currents of Art Deco and Art Nouveau and interested in Abstract Art. This helped him achieve something Mawson never managed: a design classic – at Naumkeag – which Elliott sensibly illustrates on the cover of her book.
Though she lists and documents Steele’s gardens, Elliot is disappointingly quiet on stylistic issues and on Steele’s place in the histories of garden design and landscape architecture.
The Gardens of Fletcher Steele, American Landscape Architect by Piscilla Elliott (2014) is published by Guysborough Press 72 Cottage Street Melrose MA 02176

Great Gardens of London, Victoria Summerley – book review by Tom Turner

Good writing and good photography are real assets for garden books. Great Gardens of London was produced by a skilled investigative journalist working with two expert photographers. Victoria Summerley explains that the book is ‘aimed at residents and visitors alike’. Yes. But it is not particularly aimed at garden visitors. Or should I say ‘it is not aimea at all garden visitors’. The book’s first garden is that of the Prime Minister’s official London residence: 10 Downing Street. Doubtless it has been seen by many important visitors to London but I doubt if many travellers on omnibuses from Clapham are to be counted among their number.

Frances Lincoln (2015) ISBN-10: 0711236119, ISBN-13: 978-0711236110

The book has a map and appendix with details of which gardens can be visited: 13 of the gardens are never open and 17 are open in various degrees. I did not know that Downing Street lets in a few visitors by ballot. Another appendix suggests more gardens to visit. 

America is said to have less of a class system but Winfield House, second in the book and the American ambassador’s London residence, is not part of the tourist circuit. No matter: the book is a great opportunity to see and read about these important gardens.

I don’t know whether to be pleased or sorry that PM Gordon Brown’s wife (Sarah) introduced raised vegetable beds to Downing Street. Good to think of the happy couple doing something useful with their time but I worry about how the beds fit into the garden aesthetically and about why they wanted the beds to be raised. Did they use railway sleepers? Raised beds are fashionable, and possibly a Tory idea, but my experience is that unless your ground is badly drained or polluted, or you want to avoid carrot fly, vegetables do better in unraised beds and need less watering. I’d like to know whether Downing Street harvests rainwater for its garden – or does it make unsustainable use of tap water? I was interested to read that Margaret Thatcher commissioned the Downing Street rose beds and that they contain a rose named after her. Great that it survived the dark age of Blair and Brown, much as the nearby statue of Charles I survived the Civil War. Do they use strips of iron to protect the adjoining lawn?

Sustainable gardening is high on the agenda for Winfield House. Even memos are composted. Just think how much Wikileaks trouble would have been avoided if the US had stuck to composting. Obama liked Winfield garden so much that he joked about wishing he had been Ambassador to London instead of President.

The gardens and parks in the book which are accessible to the public are well worth visiting, though most are flattered by the excellence of the photography. Eltham Palace Garden is an interesting place but, despite continued efforts by English Heritage, I find the quality of the gardens disappointing. Summerly sees Eltham as the product of ‘two dynasties’: the Tudors and the Courtaulds. But one does not sense their tastes in the design. It looks like a municipal park. English Heritage say the aim is restore Eltham to the style of the 1930s and they have used archive material to this end. Perhaps the problem is that the Art Deco style, which worked well for rebuilding Eltham Palace, was never resolved in English gardens. Fletcher Steele, as he showed at Naumkeag, could have done a much better job.

The garden of Horace Walpole’s Strawberry Hill was ‘pretty dreadful’ before the Strawberry Hill Trust began a £9m restoration of the house and garden in 2009. Generally, I think individuals and trusts do a better job of this kind of work than bodies, like English Heritage, with national responsibilities. The Strawberry Hill Trustees have the wisdom to run a volunteer programme. Why don’t all publicly owned green spaces do this?

The next chapter is on Hampton Court, where much garden history research and restoration has been carried out. I am sorry that the book does not use historical drawings or plans but can understand that they might be thought unsuitable for a non-specialist readership.

Moving on, I was very pleased to find a chapter on the Downings Road Floating Gardens in Bermondsey. The wretched, unimaginative, blinkered bureaucrats of Southwark Council have been trying to get them removed for years. Their inclusion may help those who have long campaigned for their recognition and protection.

The book’s 30 gardens are categorised into five chapters. Some are unconvincing as groups. Chapter 4, on roof gardens, is a good group and a pleasure to discover. My dream is that London will become a Roof Garden City. This chapter shows what is possible. Most roof gardens are, understandably, not open to the public. But they are great places and, unlike most of the design styles represented in the book, they look contemporary. Jane Brown wrote of ‘the gardens of a golden afternoon’. Much though I like them, that afternoon continues to linger on beyond its natural lifespan. What London needs is a wealth of roof gardens. Unlike many capital cities, including Washington, Delhi, Beijing, Tokyo and Moscow, London has a climate which is very well suited to the enjoyment of roofs – providing they are well planned and well designed. I hope the second edition of Victoria Summerley’s Great Gardens of London will include the University of Greenwich Roof Garden in Stockwell Street. And if space can be found, I’d like to have more discussion of garden design styles.

Tom Turner

Great Garden Design by Ian Hodgson – review

Ian Hodgson Great Garden Design book jacket

Ian Hodgson Great Garden Design book jacket

The Society of Garden Designers has produced a very good book on garden design. I commend it to anyone commissioning a garden and to future historians of garden design.
The section I like best, on Outdoor Experiences, deserves to become a book in its own right. There are only four sections, on Relaxing, Dining, Playing and Bathing.  But there are subsections, so that Dining includes Cooking Outside, Keeping Livestock and Growing Your Own.
This approach to garden design comes, in the UK, from John Brookes. His Room Outside, first published in 1969, launched British garden design on its profression from the Arts and Crafts Style to Modernism. In his introduction to Great garden design Brookes draws attention to the way in which ‘this book breaks down the overall plan of a garden and deals with the various sections and functions it may include’.
A failure to grasp the key principle of Modernism hindered, and hinders, the development of garden design. ‘Form follows function’ is the most convenient summary of Modern Movement principles but caused problems for garden designers. ‘What’ they wondered, ‘are the functions of a garden?’ My criticism of Great garden design is a weakness in the history and theory of garden design.
After Brookes’ Forward and an Introduction by Ian Hodgeson (the author) there is a chapter on Contemporary Garden Styles. A section on Sourcing Inspiration is followed by a section on Choosing a Style – which struck me as a return to the high Victorian eclecticism of Edward Kemp and the Mixed Style. It is followed by a menu of styles. Their names are Contemporary Formal, Urban Chic, Cottage and Country Style, Natural Style, Water Gardens and Subtropical Style. This is a departure from Modernism but I would not call it Postmodern and nor do I think the categories will be of use to those future garden historians who come across this useful and very well-illustrated book.
Great Garden Design was published 5th March 2015 by Frances Lincoln