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Book Review: Shakespeare’s Gardens

shakespeares garden coverShakespeare’s Gardens, by Jackie Bennett; photographs by Andrew Lawson (London: Frances Lincoln, 2016), £25, ISBN 978-0-7112-3726-1 

Many accounts of Tudor gardens focus on those of royalty and wealthy estate owners, largely because they are the ones best documented in paintings, archives and archaeology. This book sets out to describe those associated with a middle-class midlander of relatively modest means, a refreshingly different approach. As the gardens with which he was most closely connected are under the care of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, the anniversary of his death has provided Jackie Bennett with the opportunity of celebrating his horticultural milieu as well as highlighting references to plants and flowers in his writings.

The book is structured around five gardens: his birthplace, his ancestral home at Wilmcote, his girlfriend’s (and later wife’s) cottage garden at Shottery, his daughter’s dowry garden at Hall’s Croft and the garden he tended during his retirement at New Place, surviving only as earthworks and semi-ruinous even at the time of its acquisition. There are also chapters setting the scene of Tudor gardening in general, and one on London gardens that Shakespeare might have encountered during his years’ residence in the capital. This period saw the publication of John Gerard’s Herball, contemporary with the year (1597) when Shakespeare acquired his property in Stratford-upon-Avon.

Although Shakespeare’s writings on plants and flowers provide a wealth of material, which has been recycled and interpreted in a sizeable number of publications (Leo Grindon’s The Shakspere Flora of 1883 being my personal favourite), far less attention has hitherto been given to their garden context. The problem with this approach is that it is essentially describing various reconstructions of imagined or little-documented Tudor gardens rather than being based on actual plans and plant lists. But the clues in his writings have allowed garden designers such as the redoubtable Ellen Willmott to bring their expertise to bear on the problem – with a budget that, for 1923, was a fairly modest £25.

The book is beautifully laid out, with highlighted sections printed on a tinted background with tempting headlines such as “The Poet’s Wild Flowers” and “Food in Tudor Times”. The specially commissioned photography is also a triumph, having largely been executed by the accomplished garden photographer Andrew Lawson. The copy-editing shows occasional lapses: the caption to a photo of Little Moreton Hall places it in Shropshire (not even close: it is in south Cheshire near the border with Staffordshire). There is a succinct Bibliography, grouped by themes. And I must not close this review without referring to the truly awful logo of the Shakespeare birthplace trust (lower case sic.) which graces the title page. But overall this well-written book offers a feast of insights into Shakespeare’s landscapes, and offers much of interest to Tudor garden archaeologists and the promoters of restoration projects.

John Edmondson