John Harvey was a remarkable historian. Disdaining the broad brush approach, he chose to work with primary sources wherever possible: estate records, family papers, account books, plant lists and nursery catalogues. The bulk of his publications were therefore short specialised notes on the analysis of his findings. Yet he also had a broad general understanding of garden history which is more glimpsed in his work than put on display.
Harvey wrote a short book on Restoring period gardens (Shire Books, 1988). Most of the text is given over to reviews of the sources of information particularly on plans and plants for periods in the history of British gardens. The first two chapters are more general and deserve careful consideration. They are entitled Introduction and General Principles.
Harvey’s Introduction asks the key question: ‘Why restore at all? Is not any attempt at restoration of a former state a denial of progress and of opportunities for contemporary design?’ He makes a distinction between two activities and gives separate justifications for them:
Restoration : You can ‘restore’ only what survives or what known to have existed. This might be done (1) because the garden or landscape was made at the same time as a surviving building and ‘forms with it a single whole’ (2) even though the house has gone, the garden remains of outstanding interest
Re-creation: You can ‘re-create’ what might have existed. This is likely to be done for ‘purely educational purposes’ or, though Harvey does not mention it, to enhance a tourist attraction
Harvey’s second chapter deals with General Principles. His starting point, for he was also an architectural historian, being that:
For more than a century past discussion, and at times embittered controversy, have surrounded the subject of artistic restoration and in particular that of historic buildings. By now there is a consensus of opinion as to general principles or, at least preferable attitudes towards the repair and reconstitution of old work. (p15).
The general principles Harvey advocates are clear and logical, but he does not list or name them. I will attempt to summarise his views as a list of Ten Principles of Garden Restoration:
Authenticity: ‘whatever is done should have the authority of knowledge of the original work and its style. In the case of gardens this concerns the plan, details of planting and the plants used. Surviving features and plants should not normally be destroyed.’
Development: ‘the later changes and accretions to a building or a garden are in themselves part of its interest, leading back to successive generations within a single family, or to new owners.’
Knowledge: ‘the restoration of former styles clearly calls for considerable knowledge of the history of gardening and for an ability to sink modern preconceptions beneath the overall atmosphere of a past era’
Time: ‘it cannot be too often or too strongly emphasized that sound restoration, or re-creation, involves the expenditure of a great deal of time. Results cannot be buried and immense harm can be done by determining a timetable in advance’
Evaluation: ‘after all this preliminary research has been completed, there may be a lengthy task ahead devoted to the evaluation of what has been found and its conversion into a coherent grouping of hard facts’
Historical accuracy in planting design: ‘can only be attained by considering three different factors’ (1) the dates of plant introductions (2) an assessment of what planting would fit with the wealth of the owners, because some species were very expensive, (3) the aspect and soil of the garden itself and what plants it would support
Minimal interference: ‘new work, carried out in situ, should be limited to the least that will ensure safety and effective continuity of use’.
Piecemeal planning: work should be done piecemeal ‘wherever possible’ so that ‘minor mistakes can be rectified and the later stages benefit from experience’
Genius loci: ‘Every garden or estate bears the stamp of the taste of past owners and of the skill of master gardeners, and we must interpret “the genius of the place’ to incorporate the qualities from each individual succession of human personalities’.
Subordination: ‘Conservation, restoration and harmonious re-creation all demand a subordination of the modern to the spirit of the old, studied with respect and humility’.