The Landscape Guide

Recollections of Great Gardeners Graham Stuart Thomas, with a forward by John Sales (London:Frances Lincoln 2003) ISBN 0 0711222886

Go to Reviews Index

Though aware of his expertise on roses, and other plants, I confess to opening this book with a certain scepticism concerning the author. This developed from the knowledge that he was the UK National Trust's first Gardens Advisor. An unusual grudge, you may think, but garden historians can only regret the sameness of treatment in the Trust's garden estate. How did it happen? This book provides some clues, its content precisely described by the title.

Most of the recollections are extremely dull. The names of the owners are dropped as lightly as the names of the plants which stand out in the author's memory. Lady This was always pleased to see him. Lord That was his usual kind and hospitable self. The gardens are always wonderful, even if the sun does not always shine. There is scarcely one interesting fact to be gleaned from the Recollections, not even the fact that 'I have been greatly honoured twice by being asked to help with the garden at Royal Lodge in Windsor Great Park; once, when with His Majesty King George VI they were desirous of prolonging the display of the many rhododendrons'.

The Forward by Thomas' successor, John Sales, is much more readable. It provides a useful account of the gardener's life and character. Sales credits Thomas with a fund of good stories and humorous quotations. They are absent from his Recollections. Thomas comes over as a dry old stick. The remark that 'He disliked protracted discussion and would usually head off any serious argument by deferring the matter, often with a joke. As a last resort he would say, slightly testily, "No doubt you will do what you think fit"'. He insisted on head gardeners calling him 'Mr Thomas' and was adept at putting them down. To me, this was a wholly inappropriate attitude. Design decisions are always difficult, especially in historic gardens. Debate and analysis are essential. The views of those who live and work in a place have exceptional value. It is no wonder the Trust's gardens acquired a respectably upholstered sub-Jekyll sameness. This book is a valuable historical record of why it happened. We now know what to avoid.