HAPPY NEW YEAR!
We all have our favourite gardening books, whether for the quality of the illustrations, -usually the first thing one notices when flicking through – the quality of the writing – which takes more time to appreciate or perhaps for the style and approach the author takes. My favourite scores highly on all three counts, and I wasn’t surprised to find it was also a favourite of several other people when I ran a course about garden writing recently. Published in 1977 and in print ever since it’s The Pleasure Garden by Anne Scott-James and Osbert Lancaster, and if you haven’t read it I hope by the time you’ve finished this post you’ll rush out and buy it immediately.
The author Anne Scott-James makes it clear from the very outset that it “is NOT a book by me, illustrated by Osbert Lancaster.” Nor is it “an attempt to write a complete history of British gardens as a rival to the recently complete History of British gardening by Miles Hadfield.” Instead she claims to have “merely written a series of essays to accompany a set of drawings on which my husband was suddenly and unexpectedly moved to embark.” The fact that “sometimes the only plant he felt like drawing was a yucca” made her “surprised that there is a not a yucca in every sketch from the Romano-British period onwards.”
The book is very simple in its approach. Anne divides garden history into 18 sections, with subjects mixed mainly chronologically and some thematical ones thrown in for good measure. Each has a few pages of text accompanied by one full page sketch by Osbert and a simple drawing of a single figure at the end of each chapter. It’s a book about trends and the evolution of garden styles rather than a linear historical account, and so much the better for it.
It opens with a piece on Roman Britain and its gardens, which answers in its first sentence that perennial joke question: what did the Romans do for us? They “invented the British country gentleman. The Celts they conquered were countrymen by nature, and the Romans added the polish.” The excavation of the Romano-British villa – thought to be the home of client king Cogidubnus – at Fishbourne in Sussex, about 15 years before the book was published, was a great turning point in garden history because for the first time archaeologists properly explored the gardens as well as the building. Their findings were used as the basis for its reconstruction.
What I particularly admired was that she not only discusses the works of Tacitus and Pliny in this context, but makes shrewd comparisons with other periods. For example “outside the formal garden was a semi-wild garden – a flash forward to the English ‘wilderness’ of Tudor times and after – linking it with the landscape.” Nor is she averse to making judgements. Picking up on the archaeological evidence of statuary, garden buildings and ornamentation to comment that “it was over-furnished and too artificial for our taste.” Later adding, I’d guess, with a faint smile that “one hopes the native landowner tempered its excesses with a little Celtic good taste, but more likely he was besotted by all its foreign novelties, and one suspects that… Cogidubnus had his name cut out in box.” Sadly Osbert’s image doesn’t show that, although the chatelaine he does draw looks formidable enough to have demanded that it was her name that should been used instead.
The opening paragraph on Tudor and Jacobean gardens is a very neat summary of how gardening changed from earlier centuries, or as Ann Scott-James puts it “shared in the whole forward thrust of the 16thc”. Indeed the impact of new plants impels her to devote a separate chapter to “Travellers and Connoisseurs”.
She praises much but again there’s an analytical sting in the tail, so while “a modest Elizabethan garden must have been a charming spot… grander gardens must have suffered from the ostentatious pomposity which were to swell in the following century.”
This is covered in a chapter on The Grand French Manner, which includes perceptive summaries: “Space mathematics and symmetry were the principles of the Restoration garden” or “nobody, even to this day, has found a way of illustrating a plantsman’s garden”. There are also some good one-liners such as “one cannot imagine Le Notre chatting up his trees.”
There are is a chapter on The Landscape where great gardens such as Stowe were given full coverage but you get a real sense that her interest lay in more modest affairs. “A new middle class style grew up, a true gardeners garden, rather hideously called the gardenesque” championed by Loudon who wrote “the gospels of the gardenesque”.
You might not agree that “the curse of mass production put a blight on gardening in about the middle of the 19thc, bringing rigidity of design and garish planting” but you can’t fault the elegance of the claim that “fashion was now more pervasive than in any other century, and the new vulgarity charmed and excited gardeners of every class.”
The short chapter High Victorian is a brilliant evocation, laced liberally with Anne’s caustic take on it: “an Italianate style was widely adopted – not the cool graceful formal style of earlier centuries but a mechanical revival with vast stereotyped terraces and flights of steps, massive statues and fountains, balustrades laden with urns of bedding plants. Statuary was now mass produced like everything else and could unfortunately be provided in unlimited quantity.”
The chapter ends : “Native plants and old fashioned perennials had a hard time to survive until the rescue parties came in 1880.” That sentiment led to pieces on the Parsonage Garden and the Cottage Garden, which included coverage of Robinson and Jekyll, who also features in a lengthy chapter on The Surrey School.
There’s a nice by-way exploring the London Square, which is summed up as “one of the most comfortable garden ideas since the arbour with a turf seat… [and] no group has ever understood comfort as well as the English middle class”. She particularly liked the way the square was “reversed” in west London and turned into a communal garden behind the houses. This made developments like the Ladbroke Estate “the most desirable place to bring up a middle class family.” Why? amongst other evidence, she adds “here a mother who had sacked or been given notice by her nursery-maid could deposit her children and continue her own life in the house.” She felt sadly that the pace of modern life was killing this off and the square had become “little more than a dog walk, where owners with trousers pulled over pyjamas or a tweed coat pulled over a nightdress, led their dogs for five minutes before breakfast.”
A quick glimpse at what the couple call Gardens en Route was a reminder that there are certain kinds of gardens that have never really received much attention and yet which are very much in the public eye and “produce a quick shock rather than a lingering enjoyment.” These are places like “the railways station, the riverside lock, the municipal promenade” where the visitor is on the move and is not going to establish a personal relationship with the gardener and where therefore the requirements are for a dramatic splash of colour and a technical tour de force.” Today it reads like nostalgia. It’s a real sign of how we have accepted the austerity of recent decades for none of these places really exist any more and where they do they rarely conform to her call for colourful carpet bedding to catch the eye.
After a quick foray into the British short-lived fascination with the Japanese Garden: “a charming, rather dotty aberration” they move on to discuss The Suburban garden,” in terms which we might not expect from them. “The Suburban Garden the most important garden of the 20th century and there is no excuse other than ignorance for using the word ‘suburban’ in a derogatory sense”… it allows owners to create their own world.”
Of course this is in practice an illusory choice, and they argue that there are only a narrow range of garden types, five of which are very popular. First is “the garden of lawn and roses” where “the upkeep of lawn often amounts to religious observance” and the choice of roses “tends to be monotonous.” The second is devoted to rock plants even though “a rock garden is rarely beautiful as a piece of landscape”. A newer style, the shrub gardens is their third category with “prostrate juniper, the fastigiate cherry, the columnar cypress dotted about in an almost gardenesque manner”. It is however “not entirely suited to the suburbs”. Next is the greenhouse where “the addict will, spend more money…than he admits to himself, let alone to his wife, and finally there is the vegetable garden where the most prestigious crop is the tomato, which has the same cachet as lobster or grouse in more extravagant households.” Despite sounding dismissive at times I think the pair are actually admiring of the efforts of suburban gardeners, claiming that as a general rule “the suburban garden is the best-kept garden in Britain… the suburban gardener may have limited ambitions but he usually achieves them”.
The length of the final piece imitates its subject. It is a mini-chapter on the patio garden an “estate agents language for backyard and there is something inspiring in the name. For while it is all too easy to allow a backyard to become a sordid site for naked dustbins it is impossible to neglect a patio… it is as much a dream garden as Chatsworth or Sissinghurst and gives far less trouble.”
The Pleasure Garden may be light and easily readable but it captures the essential story of to the evolution of British gardens, from the Roman peristyle to the “modern” patio, with wit, charm and insight. It makes a great introductory read for anyone new to the world of garden history.
I thought I’d end with a short biographical note on the authors so you can get as sense of why this is the case.
Anne Scott-James, was born in 1913 and became one of Britain’s first high-flying women journalists. After a career at Vogue and Picture Post and becoming editor of Harper’s Bazaar she decided that she preferred writing to editing so returned to being a columnist first for the Daily Mail and then as gardening columnist for Queen in 1968. This launched her into a new career as a garden writer. It helped that for 30 years she had been developing a cottage garden of her own on the Berkshire Downs. She also served on the Council of the RHS from 1978-82.
After 2 marriages ended in divorce she married Osbert Lancaster in 1967 which was clearly a very happy partnership. Apart from The Pleasure Garden she wrote Down to Earth (1971), Sissinghurst: The Making of a Garden, 1975 The Cottage Garden (1981), Glyndebourne – the Gardens (1983) The Language of the Garden (1984); The Best Plants for your Garden (1988) and Gardening Letters to my Daughter (1990. She died in 2009 aged 96.
Osbert Lancaster was born in 1908 and after Oxford and art college began working for The Architectural Review in the mid-1930s. This led to a series of books on architecture, notably (1938),which was the story of architecture told in the same unstuffy and amusing way as The Pleasure Garden. In it he invented new names for period styles such as “Banker’s Georgian”, “Stockbrokers’ Tudor” and “By-pass Variegated”, which seem to have entered the general vocabulary. Gavin Stamp described it as “one of the most influential books on architecture ever published – and certainly the funniest”. A sequel Homes Sweet Homes (1939) appeared the following year. Osbert was also a prominent and very vocal heritage campaigner.
He is however probably best known as a cartoonist. He began working for the Daily Express in 1938 and he developed the small single column “pocket cartoon” into an art form of its own. He completed about 10,000 of them using a series of regular characters – notably Maudie Littlehampton. Alongside this he had a career as a theatre designer, working for the Royal Ballet and Glyndebourne as well as the commercial west end theatre. A dandy all his life he sported a monocle, large moustache, and loved loud check suits. He died in 1986, aged 77, having been knighted in 1975.