The Landscape Guide

Patrick Taylor (ed) The Oxford Companion to the Garden (OUP, 2006, ISBN 0-19-866255-6 )

Follow this link to purchase The Oxford Companion to the Garden (Oxford Companions) through Amazon.

The 1986 Oxford Companion to Gardens has been my deskside companion for 20 years. Hoping for a worthy successor, I opened this book with pleasure - and was disappointed. The production is lavish. More gardens are described. There are more and better photographs. But the book has been dumbed down. The editor explains that 'in this new Companion we have put greater emphasis on the gardens themselves'. He believes this is 'not at the expense of their history'. But he is wrong. The emphasis has changed from reliable scholarship to the type of padding one finds in coffee table books. Some of the new articles, including those by Brent Elliot, are excellent. A book like this should be written by the leading experts on every topic. It was beyond the course of duty for Patrick Taylor to have written so many of the articles himself. See p.117 as an example. Taylor has written all the articles. The first entry is on colour theory. It would be acceptable for a glossy magazine but why should Taylor have written this when he has a world expert on the subject (Brent Elliott) on his Advisory Panel? This is followed by an entry on Columella which is shorter and much less useful than the 1986 entry by a great expert on Roman gardening:Wilhelmina Jashemski. The third article on p117 is on Brenda Colvin and replaces the 1986 entry by Michael Lancaster, one of the 1986 Companion's editors. It is slightly shorter and fails to capture the essense of Colvin's personality or her life or her work. Taylor has however written an authoritative entry on garden visiting, which seems to be his real interest.

Taylor claims to have 'retained perennially valuable entries by all the consultant and executive editors of the first book'. One wonders what he means by 'perennially valuable'. Susan Jellicoe was one of the 1986 editors and her article on the chahar bagh has been retained. But I cannot think this is what she would have wished. A great deal of research on Persian and Mughal gardens has been done since 1986. Excatations have taken place. Many books and reports have been published (eg by Dumbarton Oaks). Susan Jellicoe was an exceptionally thorough person and would have wanted the new Oxford Companion to the Garden to have included an update of her brief comment on the chahar bagh. Patrick Goode's excellent 1986 entry on the Villa d'Este has been replaced with a much shorter entry by Penelope Hobhouse. Written as though for a tourist guidebook, it makes no mention of Ovid, iconography or David Coffin - though it does inform us that the garden is 'a bewildering world of sparking spray and rushing water'.

The 1986 edition had a useful article on Czechoslovakian gardens, by Dr Olga Baseova, which has not been replaced by a 2006 Oxford Companion to the Garden entry on gardens in the Czech Republic. This could be an extension of Chamberlain's policy (re 'a quarrel in a faraway country between people of whom we know nothing') or it could be a new take on the April Fool's radio broadcast : 'This morning Belgium has been abolished.'. In either event, OUP should not expect good sales for the 2006 Oxford Companion to the Garden in the Czech Republic or Slovakia.

The best thing about the 2006 Oxford Companion to the Garden edition is its photographs. They are well printed and Taylor, who took a good number, shows himself more capable as a photographer than an editor. The captions are not on the same page as the photographs, making the photographs less useful - if more attractive. I would like to have seen more, and smaller, photographs placed near the text they illustrate. All serious garden historians should buy copies of the 1986 Oxford Companion to Gardens edited by Sir Geoffrey Jellicoe, Susan Jellicoe, Patrick Goode and Michael Lancaster. As Taylor ruefully aknowledges in his Introduction 'Anyone following in the path of that formidable team must do so with both trepidation and due modesty'. Other readers, seeking a misty overview of garden history, may find the 2006 edition a useful decoration for their coffee tables. There is undoubtedly a market for such books - but there is also a need for serious reference books on garden design - an art of ever-growing popularity. This was Geoffrey Jellicoe's original conception for the book. One also wonders if the 2006 Oxford Companion to the Garden signals a new direction in the Oxford University Press' publishing policy.

Tom Turner May 2006

See also: short review of the Gardener's Guide by Patrick Taylor