Fifty Years of Garden History

Way back in 1965 a small but dedicated band of garden enthusiasts got together and formed what was to become  “the oldest society in the world dedicated to the conservation and study of historic designed gardens and landscapes.”    Through their  interventions, advice and casework the Garden History Society helped save or conserve scores of important gardens, and, almost more importantly, raised awareness of the country’s amazing heritage of designed landscapes and gardens.  Six years later our journal Garden History was born, which means that towards the end of last year it  celebrated its golden jubilee.

The Gardens Trust is delighted to say that a bumper special issue has been put together to  mark the occasion. Thanks to the financial support of the Finnis Scott Foundation, and many of our own  members and supporters, not only has it has been sent in print to all our members, it’s also being made freely available on-line. We are very grateful to the SDS Group, who produced the digital edition.  Read on to find out more about the journal and its history, some of the people involved  and  to find the link to the digital special issue.

The journal had pretty humble beginnings.  The Garden History Society started to produce a quarterly newsletter the year after its foundation, and followed this up with a small number of occasional papers.   But by  1972 with Mavis Batey as its secretary and guiding light the society had become firmly established, and the decision was taken to incorporate the Newsletter and Occasional Papers into a new publication under the editorship of  Christopher Thacker.





It was, as Brent Elliott, a later editor, observed in his  obituary for  Thacker in 2019  ” a publication produced on a shoestring budget, the text reproduced straight from typescript and the illustrations from the photocopier, leaves of coloured manila for wrappers, stapled in a stab pattern. But for all the amateurishness and low-budget demeanour of the physical product, it announced its presence on the cultural scene with a splash.”

Garden History quickly became a highly respected source of original research becoming not only the ‘go to’ journal for established garden history academics but also the place where emerging students and knowledgeable amateurs can share their peer reviewed research.  It has gone from strength to strength following the 2015 merger of the Garden History Society with the Association of County Gardens Trusts  to form the Gardens Trust.


Inspired by Peter Hughes, the Trust’s chairman, a special issue has been put together to  mark its 50th anniversary.    A selection of ground-breaking articles from its five decades  were chosen [with extreme difficulty] and  distinguished garden historians asked to provide a ‘response’, reviewing the original, commenting on progress with knowledge and flair, and, in some cases, with personal reminiscences of the original authors.

That first issue back in 1972 included the first article chosen for this anniversary edition. It was  about  the culture of rosemary in England by John Harvey an architectural historian specialising in the mediaeval period, who, in the 1960s,  had also taken an interest in the history of plants. While his article might seem a bit niche, his painstaking investigations   reflected a new awareness of our general ignorance of early gardening in both techniques and planting.  As David Jacques notes in his response it was the first of many, with another on ‘Gillyflower and carnation’, an explanation of the complex history of a range of aromatic flowers, probably being the most important in garden history terms.

An example of Harvey’s index slips, here relating to trees and shrubs, and some of his  papers and collected material.  His archive has not yet secured a home. Photo: Sally Jeffery, 2019

Eventually Harvey also produced lists of plant introductions to England from Norman times to the end of the Georgian era, work that was only superseded by Maggie Campbell-Culver’s The Origin of Plants in 2001.  He was go on and research trade lists and estate papers to show what exactly was being done and grown in the garden at any given time.  Jacques gives an account of his life and work and ends with the still unsettled fate of his archives, pointing out in passing that reaserchers like Harvey, Blanche Henrey and Ray Desmond were “heroic figures” who worked without the benefit of computers or the internet, handling huge amounts of disparate material, and physically organising and  indexing it before turning it into works that modern scholars still rely on.  Indeed he concludes that Harvey’s work not only added to the scope of garden history but was so fundamental that everyone takes it for granted.

The second article chosen was also in that first issue of the journal and was by Thacker himself.  An accomplished linguist he was one of the first historians  to explore the ways in which the gardens of Versailles were shown to visitors by Louis XIV and to comment on some of their innovatory and influential features. Other writers have, of course, expanded on these themes, but Thacker’s initial article on the various copies of the original handwritten guide –  ‘La Manière de Montrer les Jardins de Versailles’  –  including one in Louis’s own hand, set, as Sally Jeffery points out in her commentary “an example of scholarly and accessible work which have inspired his successors”

Thacker who became the first professional garden historian employed by the newly established English Heritage, steered Garden History through its first eight years, when the journal was seeking to do two things: publish academic research on garden history and also be the house magazine of the GHS. This proved a weakness and the decision was taken to revive the GHS Newsletter, and for the journal  to concentrate on the publication of academic research. The last issue  in its original format, complete with manila wrappers and staples, which have rusted over time, appeared at the end of 1980. The editorial reflected on the success that had been achieved and the stimulus that it had given to ‘the writing and research of papers’.

The new format was launched with volume 9, number 1 in spring 1981, under a new editor, Dr William Brogden. He oversaw Garden History as it was professionally published, bound and printed for the first time, and introduced the duck egg blue covers that became its trademark for the rest of the century.  A new printing process enabled the illustrations to be of much higher quality although they  were exclusively black and white.

Is this the way we were intended to see Apollo at Rousham?

One of the landmark articles he published was by Mavis Batey in 1983 about the letter from John Macclary, the gardener at Rousham, to Lady Cotterell-Dormer the owner’s wife, which begins: “Madam, I’m afraid my master and all of you have forgot what sort of a place Rousham is, so I have sent you a description of it that it may not quite creep out of your memorys”. For  Batey, the particular significance of the letter was to record how, like Louis XIV’s Versailles, Rousham  was meant to be experienced in a single narrative route around, with little sign of more modern “random” ways of seeing a site.  She had a real sense of place, as well as people and as Christopher Woodward, the Director of the Garden Museum points out in his commentary, her work was  ” formative in how we write garden history: a sense of place, a delight in various sources of evidence, a mistrust of imposed theory and the puzzles that people are. And the occasional smile.”

The view from Backbury from Goodchild’s article

Brogden was followed as editor by Brent Elliott (1984–88)  whose own work often appeared in the journal, and  then by  the joint editorship of Jane Crawley and Elisabeth Whittle (1989–97). The 1990s saw three of the chosen articles appear, all ground-breaking in their field.

Peter Goodchild looked at John Evelyn, his work and  his wide acquaintanceship with a host of key  intellectuals or virtuosi  and in particular his correspondence with John Beale about Backbury Hill, “a real place  […] proper for a most accomplished Elysium”. As John Dixon Hunt commented this proved to be “fundamental in the development of English place-making” and  “the creation and formation of the landscape garden.”

from Batey’s original article

A second piece by Mavis Batey on the picturesque movement ” a peculiarly British reaction to the Romantic attitudes sweeping Europe” was part of an  issue in 1994 devoted to commemorating the bicentenary of Uvedale Price’s Essay on the Picturesque and Richard Payne Knight’s The Landscape.  The Picturesque  was as Michael Symes says in his response “a minefield, whether at the time of the Picturesque Controversy itself or in subsequent treatment of the theme by literary, art or landscape/garden historians.”  This meant  that “it is impossible to define satisfactorily, since it is amorphous and based on fallacies, inconsistencies and illogical connections.” Although research since 1994  has broadened consideration of the subject considerably, Batey’s article  made an “admirable” introduction to trying to understand it.

The Best Garden at Chateleton , chosen by John Sales as an example of a restoration/ replanting/ recreation scheme by the Victorians

The third article from this period was by John Sales, former long serving head of gardens for the National Trust who sadly died just a couple of weeks ago. It was   based on  the keynote lecture he gave at  ‘The Restoration of Gardens’ conference organised by the Institute of Horticulture in 1994.   He introduced his subject through descriptions and definitions of gardens, garden management, restoration, recreation and conservation, asserting the idea that gardens, parklands and plants are part of a process of constant change and are therefore always in a state of improvement, growth, decline, reinvention, restoration and conservation:  they are never stand still.  He argued, most would accept successfully,  that Garden Management, the art, science and practice of horticulture, also requires recognition in itself. And that also means protection, development and resources.  He was prescient about the opportunities as well as the problems caused by climate change, and in his commentary Andrew Jasper who now had Sales’ former role puts his predecessor’s ideas into context of the National Trust today.

Attitudes to storm damage have changed drastically since the Great Storm of 1987. Sales was able to see the opportunities as well as the damage, and the National Trust has taken that on board.

The end of the 1990s saw Jan Woudstra take over the editorship, and one of his early issues saw a reconsideration by Roy Strong of his own The Renaissance Garden in England. This was first  published in 1979, 20 years earlier,  in parallel with the first major exhibition about the history of gardens held at the V&A where Strong himself was director. The book, which was reissued in paperback but without any updating in 1998 had been ” a voyage of discovery into what was virtually virgin territory.” His review of the 20 years scholarship since its publication was perceptive arguing that “modern scholarship revels in fragmentation and draws back from overviews”.

It led him to list a whole range of further research possibilities. As Paula Henderson notes in her response Strong  was not interested in the the practicalities of horticulture.That has been left to other more recent scholars.  Instead he set a new and elevated intellectual tone  with his literary and iconographic  approach to garden history, using the approach employed first by those studying the eighteenth-century landscape garden, and in doing so put Tudor and Jacobean gardens back in centre-stage. [It would be interesting to know what Strong thinks of the last piece in the collection]


some of the first colour plates in the journal

Two innovations to the journal stand out from this period. The first is  the introduction of  additional special issues on a particular theme, and the other is the use of colour. Both can be found in volume 28, number 1, issued in 2000. Appropriately, because of its timing, it was dedicated to ‘Reviewing the Twentieth-Century Landscape’ and included a series of colour plates of twentieth-century gardens.

Two articles from the issue have found their way into this anniversary edition. The first by Jan Woudstra himself on ‘The Corbusian Landscape’, points out that although  Le Corbusier’s architectural work is well known surprisingly  little research   had been done on his landscapes and gardens. He presented a detailed overview  concluding that Corbusier’s ideas were “simplistic and obsessively directed towards the control of the living environment irrespective of peoples needs… he did not understand the concept of a landscape for living.”

Since then notes Elain Harwood in her review, there really has been little additional research apart from an exhibition in New York, before adding her own updates to Woudstra’s work.  In a way this is symptomatic about the way that 20thc landscape has been overlooked until relatively recently, although the Gardens Trust has, with others, been trying to change that.  A conference, called “Compiling the Record“,  held at the Garden Museum in June 2017, led to the Trust asking supporters to suggest mid-century gardens and landscapes that should be included on theNational Heritage List for England . The result was 20 new sites added to the Register of Parks and Gardens of Special Historic Interest in England in 2020, with an on-line lectures series about each one of those sites.

Plan of Little Sparta in 1999

Writing about contemporary gardens is difficult because most of us somehow lack the critical vocabulary we have for historic landscapes. So Patrick Eyres must have found it doubly hard to write not just the original article in that same issue on Twentieth Century Landscapes, but 22 years later to write a critical follow up, especially as he knew the owner  and the landscape well and had also became involved in the management of the of the Little Sparta Trust. Yet that difficulty doesn’t show.

In the original article Eyres discusses how from the mid-1970s, Little Sparta was not only a garden-in-progress, but also a nursery of ideas and a workshop for rehearsing the neoclassical pastorals that could then be transplanted into the wider world.  Finlay lamented that sculpture in the landscape had become detached from the European tradition of placing sculpture within garden landscapes. He attempted to restore that link with  sculpture and inscriptions carefully placed on routes around the garden or in woodland, and not just at Little Sparta but in his external commissions. They provide an echo of the 18th political garden with its polemic and satire, and reopen and amuse the eye of the observant visitor.  The article was important as an early critical analysis of a thoughtful and incisive contemporary garden maker.

One final article has been chosen from Woudstra’s time in the editorial chair, and he was asked to review it. In a good example of how good garden history develops David Jacques tackled the The dilemma of what makes “a Dutch Garden” in England head on.  It began as a riposte to  John Dixon Hunt’s The Dutch Garden in the Seventeenth Century  which argued  that the idea  was well established as a concept from literary sources :   ‘But who does not know what a Dutch garden is?’  As Woudstra points out,  Jacques’ s argument showed the much wider scope of garden history that was possible and indeed essential.  “It should be  more akin to the study of cultural landscapes and environmental history [and]  acknowledge the idiosyncrasies of the owners, as well as address ‘politics, religion, taste, men’s fashion, cuisine, transport, “undertakers”, attitudes to flowers, husbandry, plant introduction.”  The article is important because it demonstrates that  it is just such a wide and diverse approach that makes garden history such  an enjoyable and rewarding subject.

Another themed issue had appeared in 2001. Devoted to ‘Lancelot Brown (1716–83) and the Landscape Park’, it again used colour on the cover and inside. Apart from these innovations, though, the trademark duck-egg blue covers survived for a little longer until finally replaced in 2004 by the carefully chosen images that continue to this day. This change was the responsibility of Barbara Simms,  who took over the editorial chair in 2004, and has become our longest serving editor.

In 2007 a new bumper-sized themed issue appeared,  this time on The Cultural and Historical Geographies of the Arboretum with three guest editors from Nottingham University. In it was an overview by Brent Elliott of the development of arboreta in the 19thc. He analysed their design and planting style and their relationship to the subsequent emergence of the wild garden and then woodland garden. One key focus was the changing attitudes to the  naturalisation of exotic trees and shrubs.

Abney Park, which started life as an arboretum of exotic trees

In his response, one of the original guest editors,  Paul Elliott, showed how this affected not only later garden styles but the professionalisation of forestry, landscape architecture and arboriculture, and the role of trees in the development of public green spaces.  Increasingly too he showed how it has impacted on our understanding of ecology as well as social and environmental history.

Conservation was the theme of Brian Dix’s article which he tackled through the example of  the 2006-8 work on the Victorian parterre at Witley Court, now a romantic ruin following the disastrous fire in 1937.

This was almost the last grand whole-site archaeological investigation as not only has the wisdom of such wholesale garden digs has been questioned, but, of course because of constraints of funds and other resources.

It demonstrated one of the dilemmas facing all conservation schemes: whether  to use the evidence from archaeology and documentary sources to recreate the original or alternatively whether  to use it as the basis for a more modern interpretation of the original schemes. It also begs the question of whether any form of restoration at all should take place

As garden archaeologist Stephen Wass points out in his response, the article   highlighted Dix’s insights into historic working practices as revealed by the evidence, with for example a detailed consideration of the often overlooked ‘nuts and bolts’ of the investigation, such as  the exhaustive account of the preparation of the ground and the setting out of the parterre.

Wass adds a summary history of garden archaeology showing how much early work  elsewhere went largely unreported, with Dix’s paper citing almost a dozen unpublished reports, an early instance of sign-posting people towards what today is termed ‘grey literature’ in archaeological circles.

The final article by Oliver Cox about the iconography of Stourhead is a good case of challenging orthodoxy.  Stourhead is usually interpreted as an 18thc classical landscape with a unified and intended “meaning” based on its design and buildings, but our understanding of garden history as we have seen in other articles has been  moving away from such a purely literary or architectural approach.


Cox suggests instead that we need to take the perceptions and comments of visitors more seriously, because they often saw none of the supposed iconography but just enjoyed the landscape for its own sake.

Tom Williamson believes such a simple idea broke new ground in several ways, opening up novel approaches to the interpretation of eighteenth-century designed landscapes. It has certainly been taken up with at least two recent PhDs  using visitors views as the basis for their own analytical research.  But, as Williamson points out, Cox’s argument applies to well beyond a rethink of Stourhead, and  suggests that no garden can ever have a single meaning, or even a single range of meanings, and that made his article ground-breaking.

Over its 50 years Garden History has acquired an international reputation for the academic rigour of its contributors and the quality of its articles. This is something of which the Gardens Trust is rightly proud. It is often described as ‘the jewel in our crown’ and we intend to cherish the reputation that it rightly enjoys. So, we now look forward to the next fifty years. The philistines among us may see history as a sterile subject that never does more than look to the past. The study of garden history, though, disproves any such notion. Gardens are not like a sculpture, a painting, or even the building of a leading architect. They are never finished. For them, it can never be just a question of preservation or restoration. Gardens never stay still. They are constantly developing and changing and left unattended will decay. So, the study of garden history must look forward as well as back.


Currently, we live in difficult and uncertain times, unprecedented in the lives of most of us. Historic gardens are at risk from several pressures: scarce resources, the threat of encroaching development and climate change, to name just three. To understand the significance of our garden heritage and the importance of conserving it for future generations, one must have a proper understanding of its evolution. That is why the subject is so important, and why Garden History has such a vital part to play. Long may it continue.

And finally here’s the link to all 13 articles and responses….

Thank you to Peter Hughes for allowing to crib his editorial to use as the basis for this post, and for reminding me, that as Disraeli quipped  “plagiarists at least have the merits of preservation.”


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