Magazine article History Today

Digging for History: Gillian Mawrey, Editor of Historic Gardens Review, Introduces the Study of Historic Gardens as a Hotbed of Historical Research, Sheer Pleasure and Campaigning for Conservation

Magazine article History Today

Digging for History: Gillian Mawrey, Editor of Historic Gardens Review, Introduces the Study of Historic Gardens as a Hotbed of Historical Research, Sheer Pleasure and Campaigning for Conservation

Article excerpt

TYNTESFIELD, THE NATIONAL TRUST'S FLAGSHIP acquisition near Bristol, attracts 600-800 people a day, all keen to see its High Victorian architecture and decoration. Today's visitors walk up to the house through the gardens which, like the house, are undergoing their own costly and thorough restoration. The magnificent carpet bedding on the terrace is much admired and the Kitchen Garden, with its espaliered fruit trees, seems to exert a particular fascination.

The National Trust has been doing this sort of thoughtful conservation, based on research into the individual sites and the horticultural traditions of the days in which they were first laid out, ever since the 1950s; yet it is the sad and extraordinary fact that Britain's historic gardens, unlike her listed buildings, are still not properly protected. Indeed, they were not even categorized in any formal way until the 1980s, when Dr Christopher Thacker; one of the founders of the Garden History Society, went round the country on his own, like a latter-day Arthur Young, recording for English Heritage the gardens that he personally considered important.

Thacker was typical of garden historians of his generation in having been trained in another discipline. While teaching French and German literature at Reading University, he realized that parks and gardens had played a significant role in the lives and thinking of some of the greatest European writers, including Pope, Voltaire and Rousseau. He and other scholars, such as Roy Strong and John Dixon Hunt, now of the University of Pennsylvania, have since explored the literary, artistic, social and philosophical links between gardens and the cultural worlds that create them. Yet even today it can be difficult to persuade literary critics, social historians or academic philosophers that gardens are as valid a subject for study as Ancient Rome or the French Revolution.

In the 1990s a young generation of garden historians started to publish and a range of general books about historic gardens began to become available, while specialists could access various learned journals. But the subject was still virtually ignored by magazines and broadsheet newspapers. Although they often offered debate at a fairly high level about architectural history and conservation, editors tended to see gardens in more practical horticultural terms: they might be interested in which varieties of dahlia, for instance, would grow best in which soils, rather than which plants might have been preferred by a great garden designer such as Gertrude Jekyll.

While the historic gardens that many people first think of may be those now safely in the hands of the National Trust or similar public bodies in Britain or on the Continent, the field is far larger, and more global, than that. Publications such as Historic Gardens Review aim to get people all over the world interested--perhaps even involved--in caring for their own historic parks and gardens, conserving them where possible, researching them and sharing information and enthusiasm. The scope for action and study is international. Gardens have been important to most societies worldwide, but their role as part of a country's heritage is not always appreciated. The first accurate restoration of one of India's Moghul gardens, that of Humayun's Tomb in Delhi, was carried out only in the last decade, while in countries such as Syria and Russia--even France--there are hundreds of parks and gardens whose historic value has never been noticed at all. …

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