Written by Katherine Lambert, Photographs by Alex Ramsay, Gardens of Cornwall, (London: Frances Lincoln, 2015) £12.99
Cornwall’s mild and wet climate rewards horticulturalists that seek pleasure in exotica, for whom the promontory’s microclimate is both a challenge and an opportunity to indulge in lush fantasy, in battles with the ever-present wind and the ‘wolves of water’ that surround the county on three sides. To be a gardener here takes bravado, hard work and money. The rewards are enviable. (As one anecdote goes, a French horticulturalist visiting Caerhays abandons his notebook and when asked why, says, but it is impossible, no-one ‘will believe me.’)
Katherine Lambert visits 24 of Cornwall’s best and best-known gardens and writes an essay for each. Her selection covers at least 500 years, from the Carew plans for Antony to the newest, Tremenheere, with its sculptural curiosities; and from the three ‘Tamar’ gardens of Cotehele, Antony and Edgecumbe, south to the Minnack and by boat to Tresco on the Scilly Isles.
Lambert walks the ground at each. Lamorran ‘rolls down to the sea…lawns, archways and bridges help to direct the downwards flow.’ At Trevarno, to understand the miraculous regeneration one should ignore the prescribed route and ‘head for the walled enclosure’. And at Trewyn House in St Ives she reminds the reader to take Barbara Hepworth’s advice and wander around the garden alone.
The writing is itself a force of nature, sweeping the reader along shaded paths and deep-sided valleys, through family histories, planting schemes, spiteful storms and eccentricities. Did you know Seymour Tremenheere took his European Grand Tour in a yellow carriage? At Tresco we learn that three Dorrien-Smith brothers died in World War II, two of them on the same day. Where a house exists the relationship between house and garden is described. In contemplating complex and experimental planting, difficult sites and specimen trees, disciplined Victorian compartments and freestyle modernity – the science and aesthetics of gardening – Lambert’s engaging style can fashion a curious eavesdropper from the laziest of readers, and titillate the more knowledgeable.
The shortest of the essays is about the Eden Project which, she concedes, is not really a garden at all and whose vast golfball domes inspire only 600-odd words, some of them about the irony of the awful traffic backed up to engage with ecology.
As it happens, Eden gets the lead in the book’s sub-title, ‘Eden Heligan and other delights’: good business sense but begs the question, for whom is the book written? With longer essays it would be a wonderful armchair read. As a guidebook, it is background reading. Alex Ramsey’s photographs are documentary rather than evocative, and the distribution and relationship between text and photographs diminishes both. More story and better typography, a more careful choice and positioning of photographs and a hierarchy between the two, would make a good book special.