Magazine article The Spectator

'A Natural History of English Gardening', by Mark Laird - Review

Magazine article The Spectator

'A Natural History of English Gardening', by Mark Laird - Review

Article excerpt

A Natural History of English Gardening Mark Laird

Yale, pp.448, £45, ISBN: 9780300196368

I hesitate ever to criticise an author for the inappropriateness of a book's title, since it's more likely the fault of someone in marketing, who's had a Bright Idea. But whoever is the culprit, the omission of the dates '1650-1800' from the dust jacket certainly risks annoying the bookshop browser, who may grumpily set the book to one side in a huff.

This would be a pity, since there is a great deal of value in Mark Laird's exposition of his multifarious research projects. He is senior lecturer in landscape architectural history at Harvard Graduate School of Design, but probably best known this side of the Atlantic for the leading part he took in the restoration of Painshill, that most delightful of 18th-century gardens, near Cobham in Surrey. Laird's preoccupations include John Evelyn, the diarist, and his garden at Sayes Court, the naturalist Gilbert White at Selborne, the collagist Mrs Delany, the gardening Duchess of Beaufort, the plant collectors Mark Catesby and John Bartram -- who, with the financial support of Peter Collinson, ensured the introduction of many American exotics to make shrubberies in English landscape gardens -- not to mention the animal-keeping Duke of Richmond and the bird-loving Princess Augusta at Kew.

At the beginning of each chapter is an apposite watercolour painted by the author, together with a useful synopsis. His avowed aim is to try 'to find common ground in the early modern period by linking the ordering of the garden to the quest for order within the natural world'; and in that he has succeeded. He is not concerned with the English 18th-century garden-making of Bridgeman, Kent and Brown, but rather the business of gardening itself, particularly where it bumps up against wildlife, the environment and the weather.

Temple Flower Garden' of Richard Bateman's Grove House, Old Windsor, Berkshire, 1730

Laird points up connections between developments or occurrences in the horticultural sphere and climatic events: for example, the terrible drought of 1762 described by White, the loss of Evelyn's exotic plants and pet tortoise in the bitterest winter of 1683-4 (when there was a Frost Fair on the Thames) and the destruction of Evelyn's woods by the great storm of 1703. Incidentally, the accounts of the last sound scarily like those of our own great storm of October 1987, which also had a marked impact on thinking about gardens and tree-planting. …

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