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Book Review: Paradise Gardens and Great Gardens of London

Book Review: Paradise Gardens and Great Gardens of London

Dr Toby Musgrave, Paradise Gardens: Spiritual Inspiration and Earthly Expression(Frances Lincoln, 2015) £30

Victoria Summerley, Great Gardens of London, (Frances Lincoln, 2015) £30

Two new books from Frances Lincoln, the specialist gardening publisher, landed on my desk several months ago and its taken me a long time to get round to writing this review. This is partly because I wanted to consult a class of my students. Far from being a cop-out it was because they were studying Garden Writing in all its forms, historic and contemporary, literary and practical, as well as magazines and reference books and I wanted to see if their opinions coincided with my own.

One of our collective opinions was that there has been a huge shift in the approach to garden writing over the last century, indeed really over the last couple of decades. The emphasis used to be on the text - well written, in-depth, and usually quite ‘dense’ - lightened with some interleaved illustrations. Now it has shifted dramatically to an emphasis on the images, with the text often playing a subsidiary role. These two books, are good examples of that. One student riffled through both and said she hardly noticed the text in either because as the pages flicked past they shone bright with enticing colour. And yes she was tempted to delve in and read. All to the good so far.

So what should the reader expect from these two volumes which are similar in size and good examples of the image-strong Frances Lincoln house style? Paradise Gardens by Toby Musgrave has a stunning cover of the Shingon Buddhist Temple - if covers sell books then this should have sold its print run on Day 1, even though the temple doesn’t actually figure inside. This is a compendious and studious review of the effects of spirituality and religion on gardens. Musgrave covers the whole gamut from classical and ancient belief systems, via the Abrahamic and several Asian religions to pantheism and polytheism and ends with a look at new versions of spirituality and their relationship with gardens and designed landscapes. This could easily have been a western-oriented approach with the usual emphasis on Eden, monastic gardens and the hortus conclusus and so on. Toby Musgrave takes a much more balanced approach here. Like the gardens of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, the obviously religious gardens of medieval Europe have a much lower profile and are set in a much wider context, and take up less than a quarter of the whole book. This allows him greater freedom to explore such things as the impact of Taoism and spread of Chinese garden ideas to the rest of the east, particularly Japan which I think are not really well understood in the west. The final sections on polytheism, paganism and new beliefs are perhaps the most intriguing, although each suffers from being all too brief, almost as if they serve as introductions to a potential series of books. He draws parallels across belief systems through examples such as sacred groves or the differing view on the perfection of nature but there is scope for much more thinking like this. Indeed scholarly work putting Hindu, Buddhist, Aztec or Inca gardens/attitudes to plants into a world context would, I think, be welcome.

Paradise Gardens is an attempt to be comprehensive, and in the days of the internet that is a very difficult task. As a result the 200 or so pages Toby Musgrave has been allowed, could easily be seen as somewhat superficial, especially since at least half of them are taken up with beautiful images. Instead I think he has made a case for that series! I suspect though that he won’t get it. Another collective opinion was that many books are becoming more magazine like, whilst magazines are becoming bittier and bittier, in the same way that letters gave way to email and email to twitter. Shorter and shorter as if people can’t take in more than a single thought at a time. Thus serious reflective books about horticulture and gardens are fewer in number. Great Gardens of London is a good example of this trend. Written by Victor Summerley, author of the Secret Gardens of the Cotswolds it looks good. The writing is lively, engaging and informative and it is obviously beautifully photographed - and coherently so. Using just two photographers, Marianne Majors and Hugo Rittson Thomas, rather than photo library images as in Paradise Gardens is a bonus, pulling the whole feel of the volume together. So what’s the problem? I think it lies in the purpose. This is a very personal selection of gardens, divided into several sometimes apparently rather arbitrary categories. Pomp and Circumstance for example looks at half a dozen grand residences from No.10 to Hampton Court via Strawberry Hill and the US Ambassadors house in Regents Park, whilst Gardeners Worlds is a look at a group of gardens as disparate as the Old English Garden at Battersea, Cheslea Physic Garden and the allotments in Bushy Park.

The result is, from my point of view at least, not so much a coherent book but more a collection of pieces from a classy garden magazine. Don’t get me wrong its not that I didn’t enjoy turning the pages or even getting a little envious sometimes. Each garden account is interesting and complete in itself like a well written article but doesn’t really have much in common with its fellows, and there’s not much analysis or constructive criticism, although that’s a fault of most garden writing. [Perhaps we lack the language or don’t want to upset our hosts.] Having read it through once I wonder if one would return to it again? In my case I suspect not. That may well be my problem rather than the book’s, because Frances Lincoln clearly know their market and several of my students told me they would want to go back to it again - but as a leisurely relaxed ‘coffee table’ kind of read rather than a ‘serious' one.