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Architecture & design

A critical 150 years in the evolution of the English garden

— July 2015

Article read level: Undergraduate / student

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Richard Wilson, Kew Gardens: The Pagoda and Bridge, 1762, oil on canvas, 47.6×73cm. Paul Mellon Collection, Yale Center for British Art

The plants, people and natural environment are all part of the story of the development of the English garden, explored in Mark Laird's fascinationg account

A Natural History of English Gardening 1650–1800 by Mark Laird

Numerous books have been published in recent years on English garden history. Many are well researched, providing details of the personalities involved, plans, plants, orders and payments.  But in Mark Laird’s book we learn rather what was going on around these developments: the climate, local weather conditions, wildlife and pests, how well plants grew (or not) – a rounded, ecological account of 150 years of garden development. It expands our knowledge of the environmental backdrop against which the great names of British garden design – Charles Bridgeman, William Kent, Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown, and so on – created their famous gardens.

Laird has undertaken highly detailed research into sources previously untapped, or simply not yet ‘joined-up’. There are letters and diaries, newspapers and journals, domestic accounts, the visual evidence provided by paintings, prints, drawings, and literary evidence. It is hard facts that he presents to us, some of which contradict previous histories.

Laird has been doing this for some time. In his publication of 1999, The Flowering of the Landscape Garden: English Pleasure Grounds, 1720–1800 (Penn Studies in Landscape Architecture, University of Pennsylvania) he pointed out that the accepted view of the 18th-century landscape garden, with its lawns, trees and serpentine lakes all in varying shades of green, tended to ignore the flowers and colour that were also in these new gardens. Working on both sides of the Atlantic, he gave due credit to the contribution to the new shrubs and conifers from North America.

As a member of staff of the Harvard University Graduate School of Design, yet involved in the recent restoration of Painshill in Surrey, Laird is an expert on the tie-ups in garden developments

The book also considers the long-term meterological conditions, with evidence of the Little Ice Age (which started some time between 1350 and 1600 and finished during the 19th century – exemplified by frost fairs on the Thames), and specific droughts and storms that affected the growth and success of trees and plants. He takes a deeper look at local native flora and fauna, all too neglected in academic accounts. He also examines the way that early publications on gardens – produced when these gardens themselves were still novel – tended to influence the thinking of both contemporary readers and later historians.

Horace Walpole (1717–97)  is prime culprit. He was an indoor man, a theorist and idealist, who liked to wander in his garden and look at it, but hardly immersed himself in real nature. Walpole’s book, The History of the Modern Taste in Gardening (1780) was the first history of English gardens, becoming the ‘standard’ work on the subject, but as it dealt with design rather than practicalities, it omitted references to real nature and later accounts followed this example.

One writer who did record every aspect of nature around him was Gilbert White, whose National History of Selborne (1789) provides the basis for Laird’s book title. White recorded the year’s round of weather, plants, animals, plants and pests, the sounds of the countryside, and what we would now term the environmental and ecological aspects of nature, its decay and death feeding the renewal of life.  

The book is full of people as well as plants, such as the diarist John Evelyn, with his garden at Sayes Court, part of the ground of which is currently being rescued to create a renewed garden in Docklands. Many of the women whose achievements were all too neglected until recent times are also included. Not surprisingly, Mrs Delany (1700–88) features among them: an extraordinary artist who in later life produced a series of botanical collages featuring some still rare specimens. And I was glad to see mention of Maria Sibylla Merian (1647–1717), whose work I have long admired; she travelled to Surinam to study and record insects, an achievement only fully recognized in the early 21st century.

The author never lets us forget that he is a practising landscape architect, garden designer and artist. Each chapter begins with one of his own watercolours, thus complementing the work of so many other artists. His images make reference to the subject of the chapter, and they are all dedicated to specific individuals. Indeed throughout the book one is very aware of the author himself, going about his work of researching, selecting, and writing the book. His images also serve to emphasize that modern methods of communication have not surplanted that of eye and hand, when it comes to real observation.

At first glance, this large-format book appears to be a coffee-table publication rather than an academic one, with its numerous, detailed illustrations. In fact the text is highly detailed, though wonderfully illustrated and clearly expressed, and thus very readable by the non-specialist and specialist alike.

I have just two small points of criticism. The title of the book, both on its hard cover and on its attractive dust jacket, is given as A Natural History of English Gardening. Yet both the title page and the publisher’s website add the specific time span of ‘1650–1800’; without these dates, potential readers might assume it to be a complete history of English gardening down the centuries (the omissions are clearly design errors, for the final chapter is titled ‘Aftermath: Natural history and Gardening Just Before and Well Beyond 1800’). My second point concerns the limited geography, for almost all the material deals with the south of England. To be fair, Laird explains his geographical boundaries at the outset, and indeed the sheer depth and detail of his research has necessitated limits on his geographical range. Perhaps that is for further study, and another book...

A Natural History of English Gardening 1650–1800  by Mark Laird is published byYale University Press, 2015.  440pp., 300 colour and 100 mono illus. ISBN: 978-0-300-19636-8


Patricia Andrew
Art historian

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