The illustrations are excellent but the text is disappointing. Italian gardens suggests a book about the gardens of Italy but as the subtitle – a cultural history reveals it is not a book about garden design. Design is mentioned but it is not treated systematically. Chapter 2, on Medici gardeners 1518-1550 opens as follows ‘The desire to make gardens is like a hereditary disease’. While not objecting to wit, I do not see this as a useful explanation of how one of history’s greatest gardening families acquired its passion for gardens. Nor does Atlee give any account of Italy’s Roman gardens, as the title would lead one to expect. A newcomer to the subject might think the first gardens ever made in Italy date from the fourteenth century. Atlee is the author of several travel guides to Italian gardens and this book is more akin to a guide book than a history book.
The cultural history of gardens is an interesting topic but I do not see why it should be detached from the design history of ‘how and why gardens took their present form’ (see comment on John Dixon Hunt’s use of the term cultural history). One could write cultural histories of furniture, or milk bottles, but they would not serve as substitutes for design history. So why separate the two approaches to history? My impression is that cultural historians have less appreciation of design than design historians have of culture. They tend to be ‘words people’ instead of ‘word and image’ people – and they don’t seem very good at reading plans. My recommendation to someone taking up garden history is to begin by measuring, drawing, photographing and writing about a single historic garden, including an account of the cultural context in which it was formed. From the other end of the telescope, I believe designers should have a broad appreciation of the cultural, technical and artistic context in which they are working.
Humphry Repton's design for the grounds of the Brighton Pavilion surives and could be an influence on the layout of the gardens
Written by Mike Jones and published in 2005, this is a beautifully produced book on the Royal Pavilion in Brighton. Jones was head of Conservation and Design in Brighton and has contributed a remarkable set of flower paintings to the book. It gives a full account of the original project and of the restoration project. One could hardly ask for more but, for me, the project raises a question: was the decision to restore the Nash garden design right? John Nash designed the garden but his ‘inspiration’ undoubtedly came from his former partner, Humphry Repton. Repton published a full account of his own garden design ideas and they were much better than Nash’s scheme. So isn’t there a case for implementing Humphry Repton’s design?
John Dixon Hunt The Italian Garden
John Dixon Hunt edited a book on The Italian Garden: art, design and culture (Cambridge University Press, 1996). He is now working with Michael Leslie on a six volume Cultural History of Gardens (scheduled to be published by Berg Publishers in 2011): The blurb states that “Michael Leslie is Professor of English at Rhodes College. He was founding co-editor of the Journal of Garden History (now Studies in the History of Gardens and Designed Landscapes – SHGDL) and Senior Fellow in Landscape Architecture at Dumbarton Oaks (Harvard). John Dixon Hunt is Professor of Landscape Architecture at University of Pennsylvania. He was previously Director of Studies in Landscape Architecture at Dumbarton Oaks and is editor of the journal, SHGDL and series editor of the Penn Studies in Landscape Architecture.”
The book on Italian Garden indicates what is meant by the term ‘cultural history’ . It is the work of ‘a distinguished group of Italian, American, English and German scholars, with different backgrounds in art history, literature, architecture, planning and cultural history’. I appreciate the study of every aspect of gardens but am most interested in the questions of how and why they were designed, which appears not to be a significant aspect of ‘cultural history’.
The 1996 Italian Garden Chapter of most interest to me is D R Edward Wright’s ‘Some Medici gardens of the Florentine Renaissance: an essay in post-aesthetic interpretation’. He concentrates on the social use of gardens, a topic of much concern to designers but often neglected by garden historians. Wright comments that it is ‘as if human use of planned environments was a mere afterthought to an essentially artistic endeavour’. He distinguishes between the high society uses of the Boboli Garden, the relatively pastoral use of the Villa Castello – as a health resort, and the use of Pratolino as a hunting park. I hope the projected Cultural History of Gardens has more chapters like this and fewer literary canapes than Italian Garden.
Colin suggested adding Anne Whiston Spirn’s book on The language of landscape to the list of 100 Best Books on Landscape Architecture and I said I would re-read it. It is a good book, and as a commentary on a host of landscapes, it is inspirational. As a text on the theory of design, it is disappointing. The introduction (p.3) explains that ‘I was determined to write an entire book about the poetics of city and nature, one that would fuse function, feeling, and meaning’. But the word ‘poetics’ does not appear in the index and is not adequately explained in the text (though there is a reference to Aristotle but on urban planning). Wikipedia states that ‘Poetics refers generally to the theory of literary discourse and specifically to the theory of poetry, although some speakers use the term so broadly as to denote the concept of “theory” itself’. Spirn apparently uses poetics as a synonym for ‘theory’. But her book’s strength is in its observation and analysis, not its theory. She uses language and linguistic structure as analogies but (p.4) ‘places are my primary data’. Wikipedia also tells us that ‘A language is a system for encoding and decoding information’ with ‘The concept of information closely related to notions of constraint, communication, control, data, form, instruction, knowledge, meaning, mental stimulus, pattern, perception, and representation’. While not disputing the relevance of Spirn’s analogy, I believe it needs a great deal more theoretical analysis than it receives in her book. But thank you for the suggestion, Colin: I have put it on the list because far too few people give theoretical attention to landscape architecture.
We have begun updating the list of 100 Best Books on Landscape Architecture and would be pleased to have suggestions for additions – since it has does not yet have 100 books. There are overlaps with garden design, urban design, architecture and planning. For the convenience of second hand book buyers we have added links to the Abebooks website (from which books can be ordered and delivered to any country). What are your favourite books?
A summer of visiting English gardens and today’s visit to Restoration House and Garden in Rochester set me thinking about historic gardens – and reminded me to take a closer look at the 2007 English Heritage Handbook on The management and maintenance of historic parks, gardens and landscapes. It is an admirable book, well written and illustrated, but it is not the book which historic gardens most needed, because the emphasis is so much more on the technicalities of managing historic gardens than on the the strategic questions of what, why, when and where. To draw a military analogy, it is a book for quarter-masters – not a book on generalship. Also, and understandably, it offers only praise for the work of English Heritage on historic gardens. There is no clearer illustration of this point than the chart (p.47) of Job Titles and Garden Staff Roles. The highest position on the chart is Head Gardener/Garden Curator/Garden Manager and his/her qualifications are described as “M.Hort (RHS), Degree, Botanic Garden Diploma, HND or equivalents + 7 years experience’. The next column summarizes the necessary skills as ‘specialist technical skills and ability. Proven management and policy-making ability’. There is no mention of the two other essential skill-sets for managing a historic garden: historical knowledge and design judgment. It is like putting builders in charge of historic buildings, in full disregard for the need for historical knowledge and design judgment relating to architecture. Lets hope the book goes to a second edition and that this gap is filled. Meantime, we offer readers the Gardenvisit.com notes and guides to Historic Garden Restoration and and Garden Heritage Conservation.
English Heritage’s strategic weakness in garden conservation is illustrated by their work at Hampton Court and Kenilworth Castle. The handbook boasts of English Heritage’s Contemporary Heritage Garden Scheme – which I regard as almost entirely misconceived. ‘Contemporary Heritage’ is within an ace of an oxymoron – and why should they be building contemporary gardens in the precincts of great historic buildings, like Richmond Castle? To attract visitors? To give proof of their trendy tendencies? The scheme should go for scrappage.
Photo Notes: (1) the top photo shows Richmond Castle with a ‘contemporary heritage’ topiary garden (left photo) and a sensible picture of a fifteenth century orchard-vegetable garden on the English Heritage sign (top left corner of right photo) (2) the left and right photos, below, show two additional views of the ‘contemporary heritage’ garden.
The lawn (right) and the herbaceous border (left) at Richmond Castle Garden