A World of Gardens

July 5, 2012

The title of John Dixon Hunt's latest book for Reaktion suggests that it is another Reader's Digest-type overview of iconic gardens in a roughly chronological and geographical survey, but Hunt's stated agenda is rather to present a sequence of thematic essays exploring the cultural history of garden- and place-making. His earlier books have been intensely theoretical works, so this beautifully illustrated study, with 20 essays ranging from sacred landscapes to future gardens, appears to be a welcome departure in his academic writing.

However, this partial, episodic approach has inherent flaws, the most glaring of which is an intellectual archness in attempting to yoke together ancient and modern examples to sustain an argument. For example, Roman and medieval hunting landscapes are contrived to have features in common with the 18th-century Vauxhall Gardens in London and the funfair at Coney Island in Brooklyn. A determination to make modern landscape practice relevant to earlier interventions can enlighten, as at Edwin Lutyens' gardens for the Viceroy's House in New Delhi, where debts to Mughal design are obvious and appropriate. But was it wise, as in his chapter on "Capability" Brown, for Hunt to link Brown's 18th-century technique with the illusion of naturalism present in contemporary parklands across the world, just so that Laurie Olin's and Dan Kiley's work could be shoehorned into the narrative? Such sleight of hand might work well in a glossed-over dash through digital images under the cover of a darkened lecture theatre, but it remains intellectually compromised on the stark printed page.

Several of these short essays are woefully light on recent scholarship and contain wincing modern anecdotes. Hunt's essay on medieval gardens relies almost entirely upon manuscript images of garden enclosures and Pietro de' Crescenzi's well-known 14th-century treatise on garden-making: Hunt's habitual refuge of word and image. He rightly cites the importance of recent modern recreations of medieval gardens in France, and even illustrates two, but fails to analyse their form, horticultural content and their debt to archaeological investigation. Yet he expends valuable words counterpointing the medieval desire for privacy within enclosures with a similar need in our time where "different devices - mobile phone and BlackBerry - can intrude". I for one remain unconvinced of the need to know that Hunt's "Philadelphia neighbour also takes his phone into the garden to receive his calls". More disturbingly, in another essay, Hunt coins a new term for the Photoshopped images that garden visitors take to record garden "performance", through which, he argues, "in an ironical way, we have rediscovered a new Picturesque, computer-generated ('computeresque')". We are not told, of course, what the original Picturesque aesthetic promoted.

Ultimately, the arbitrary choice of the examples and images in the book fails to satisfy either a serious academic readership or the informed enthusiast. Added to this, the wide chronological and typological range, taken together with the decision that "there will be a minimum of notes", militates against the scholarly credentials of its author. Consequently, almost all quotations are unreferenced and, although the scant notes offer a few texts for each chapter, the lack of detailed references is often frustrating, as when Sir Thomas Herbert's eloquent 17th-century commentary on the Islamic gardens at Samarkand cannot be easily followed up. If 17th-century visitors to Italian gardens found them "utterly remarkable", a telling quotation from a contemporary travel journal would have helped to elucidate that. In copious cases throughout the text the reader is constantly referred back to one of Hunt's earlier books or articles for such enlightenment.

Fleeing from the cosy confines of his usual theory-laden language, Hunt's style becomes peppered with knowing exclamation marks and tiresome parenthetical asides that halt the flow of the argument, and degenerates into sloppy repetition. However, the writing becomes more assured when he is dealing with a theoretical concept such as the paragone, or contest between art and nature, in garden-making. His chronological sweep from the poetry of Sir Philip Sidney to witty dialogues in the work of the modern French landscape architect Bernard Lassus is justified. So, too, is his discussion of the "Garden of 'Betweenity'" in a tightly reasoned, if not entirely convincing, commentary on the transitional period between the formality of Franco-Dutch gardens and the more natural prospects promoted by the third Earl of Shaftesbury, which were subsequently effected by Stephen Switzer. As with all the essays, this is merely a single thread followed to explain a complex period of change.

However, Hunt's insistence on thematic explorations, particularly in 18th-century gardens, necessarily produces an overlap of quotations and ideas, and results in a plethora of bracketed directives to other essays. Thus, William Kent's seemingly prescient "leap of the fence" to incorporate surrounding nature within a designed landscape has already been prefigured in Hunt's discussion of Switzer in the preceding essay. Both are essentially reworked sections from his earlier books. More disturbingly, key practitioners are wilfully sidelined in favour of obscure artists, particularly when they have left a quotable treatise. In Hunt's essay on landscape minimalism and the reshaping of natural landforms, while an obscure Frenchman named Jean-Marie Morel is given textual and visual prominence, Humphry Repton, author of no fewer than 220 text-heavy "Red Book" proposals for landscapes, hardly rates a paragraph.

It may seem unfair to call for a more prosaic treatment when appraising what has been presented as a collection of polemical essays, but Hunt has missed a trick in his conscious avoidance of "a conventional history, following the garden from its earliest to the latest manifestation in a series of waves". As a result, the book's ambition is confused: is it meant for a National Trust member's coffee table, or for an academic's bookshelf? Hunt should have taken his cue from the book's title: it might have worked much better as a lavishly illustrated historiography of world garden-making to inform the general reader. Instead, what is offered here, from an important scholar in his field, is a series of cultural musings that are worryingly under-researched, offer no new insights and are rarely thought-provoking.

A World of Gardens

By John Dixon Hunt. Reaktion, 368pp, £29.00. ISBN 978186189-8807. Published 30 April 2012

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