Country & Garden: Grand Tour of the Gardening Classes ; Urns, Obelisks, Temples and Fountains in Herefordshire; What the Ancient Celts Did for Vegetables and How Get-Rich-Quick Merchants Helped the Career of Capability Brown - the Social History of Horticulture Has Never Been So Intriguing
Pavord, Anna, The Independent (London, England)
"There is more to social history than drawing attention to the great gulf which divides the rich from the poor and then whingeing about it." Whoa! I thought, as I tripped over this sentence on the opening page of Charles Quest-Ritson's new book. He is a master of the sweeping statement, and there are some beauties in The English Garden: A Social History (Viking, pounds 25). Francis Bacon is nailed as a "scholarly psychopath". The Grand Tour, which we have so often been told gave birth to the 18th-century landscape garden, was actually a waste of time as most of the young grandees "returned home with confused memories and a firm conviction that their own country was vastly superior to any other they had seen". Surveying the gardening scene of the late-Victorian age Mr Quest-Ritson observes: "There is little to distinguish the rapacious tycoons of the late 19th century from the thugs who climbed their way into the landed classes in Elizabethan England."
The history of gardens is usually told in one of two ways. Some highlight great gardeners and designers - John Tradescant, Henry Wise, William Kent, Capability Brown, Humphrey Repton, William Robinson. Others unroll a succession of styles: the formal topiary of the 17th-century garden superseded by the rolling grassy acres of the landscape style; the industrial tycoons of the 19th century moving from their factories into the country; the conspicuous consumption of the Victorian garden (vast amounts of glasshouses and bedding) giving way to the artificial cosiness of the Arts and Crafts style favoured by Gertrude Jekyll when doves fluttered in old stone outhouses and anything that didn't move was thatched.
Set aside all that dry academic stuff, says Mr Quest-Ritson. The history of gardens "is all about social aspirations, lifestyles, money and class". Especially class, for Mr Quest-Ritson has a beady eye for the nouveaux riches whose money has so often been the catalyst for change. Even dukes rarely come up to scratch, though he approves of the Dukes of Beaufort, "the only English noble family to be lineally descended in the direct male line from the Plantagenet kings". He has uncompromising standards, this author.
You don't have to agree with his viewpoint, but it would be a pity not to read his book for it is written with verve, dash, wit and style. Those are rarer and rather more worthwhile commodities than blue blood. It's also what I think of as an iceberg of a book. What we see on the page is supported by a great body of research underneath. This is what gives the book its sweeping style and confidence.
It's organised chronologically in five chapters which take us from Tudor gardens of knots and heraldic devices right up to the television makeovers and lifestyle magazines of today. In a book of 258 pages, this is a lot to cover and, of course, it is partial. Mr Quest-Ritson writes about the bits that interest him most, the chapters subdivided into bite-sized chunks. Fruit and Fruit Growing, The Trade in Seeds and Plants are among 16 subjects covered in the first chapter; Fashionable Plants, Garden Centres and Publishing feature in the final chapter (the sketchiest) covering the years 1915- 2000.
The advantage of writing a social history, rather than one concerned solely with gardens as art, is that it sets the gardens in a wonderfully broad context. Often, as Mr Quest-Ritson points out, there were sound financial reasons for doing the things that we have interpreted as leaps of the imagination.
As a country person, I've grown up in an age when arable land has been much more valuable than pasture and I assumed it had always been so. It hasn't. In the 18th century, heyday of the landscape park, …
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: Country & Garden: Grand Tour of the Gardening Classes ; Urns, Obelisks, Temples and Fountains in Herefordshire; What the Ancient Celts Did for Vegetables and How Get-Rich-Quick Merchants Helped the Career of Capability Brown - the Social History of Horticulture Has Never Been So Intriguing. Contributors: Pavord, Anna - Author. Newspaper title: The Independent (London, England). Publication date: December 1, 2001. Page number: 14. © 2009 The Independent - London. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All Rights Reserved.
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