Green spaces for randy tsarinas and a lovelorn princess

Garden History
July 15, 2005

This is an ambitious book: 4,000 years of garden history are covered in just under 300 pages with the help of 360 colour photographs, although, unfortunately, most of these are no larger than a credit card. It is not set out like a normal book, but rather as an ingeniously constructed website, designed to lead the average student through a year's do-it-yourself course of broad, rather than deep, study. The illustrations and the 1,000 or so plans of individual gardens, which are such a distinctive and often rewarding feature of the work, are invariably printed close to any reference to them, so there is never any need to go hunting back to a glut of images elsewhere in the book.

Nothing is taken for granted in any garden context. A brief summary of Italian city-states and their tensions precedes the account of Renaissance gardens; and the Tsarina Catherine's character and amatory inclinations are sketched before the brisk recital of her garden ventures with German, Scottish and native Russian landscape designers.

After an introductory chapter on design philosophy, the book is divided into nine chronological chapters. It opens with the ancient Egyptians and ends with post-abstract gardens of the 20th century. With such an immense chronological sweep, there are bound to be omissions, but the inexplicable gap in coverage is Oriental. There are only brief references to Chinese and Japanese gardens, despite their significant influence on European garden design. Yet the author suggests that the terraced structures of a garden assumed to have been laid out in front of the Temple of Queen Hatshepsut across the Nile from Luxor, "the oldest masterpiece of landscape architecture", could have influenced Cardinal Gambara's planning of the terrace at his Villa Lante, north of Rome, in 1573.

Some indication of Tom Turner's interest in the gardens of the ancient world may be taken from the pagination. With almost 300 pages to hand he has only just reached the Early Medieval period by page 109, though by that time, such is the flexible chronology of the writing, Persian and Indian gardens have been covered from 500BC to 1700AD. That may sound confusing, but Turner never confuses his student readers. He is a lecturer at Greenwich University, and he knows exactly when to halt his lively, popular narrative to deliver eight, nine or ten points in note form summarising the essentials of the previous pages. This device, together with the accessible plans and the photographs with their captions, should carry every reader with him; but there remains another fail-safe. At the end of each of the nine chapters is a "Types and examples" or a "Styles and examples" section.

In these, every garden of significance mentioned in the chapter is described again in more detail with a brilliantly clear, if sometimes over-simplified, colour plan.

These plans can, at their best, be an absolute revelation, more instructive than several pages of analysis. When Turner reaches the Renaissance and the Baroque periods, the quality of the plans improves, as in the Hortus Palatinus at Heidelberg, the 1716 Peterhof at St Petersburg, and, in particular, with those German gardens of the 18th century so often described as being influenced by contemporary English layouts. Prince Puckler-Muskau's comments on the gardens of his English travels are familiar enough, but here is his own park with its "pastoral spaces" strangely sandwiched between Muskau town and the Polish border, a wilderness of winding waterways; and here is Worlitz with its fake Rousseau island, a synagogue and a nymphaeum, all scattered across another watery world with more conventional features such as a pantheon, a temple of flora and a Gothic house.

These plans are so revealing - as are the twin plans of Bowood, one as Lancelot Brown left the park, the other as the 20th century has modified it - that some of the disappointing simplifications come as a surprise. Turner travels on a folding bike, so why did he not cycle the great forest park at Cirencester to record its cluster of seats associated with Alexander Pope or to hunt down Alfred's Hall, earliest of Gothic garden ventures, in Oakley Great Park? He does mention that the park requires "an enthusiasm for walking" and claims that the best way to appreciate it is from the top of Cirencester church tower, so perhaps he left the bike at home on that occasion and quailed at Cirencester's distances.

There is, too, an absence of vivid personal description: what it is like to walk the sites, how the garden buildings link up, how the visual lines work. The book would be usefully enriched if Turner included the detail that he must add when lecturing: for instance, the medieval-style city walls on the plan for Castle Howard, or the Bristol High Cross and Palladian Bridge at Stourhead. How do the two buildings, shown on his plan of the Taj Mahal, dated 1828, relate to each other, the garden and the River Jumna? Where precisely was Princess Diana sitting in the famous "dejected" photograph? There seems to be no possible viewing point.

One of the many pleasures in surfing through Turner's chapters is the game of working out whether the author cycled to a particular garden or just relied on secondary sources. Kashmir, for instance, must have been a hairy experience on a bike; but there are revealing snapshots of Nishat Bagh, Achabal and the famous Shalamar Bagh ; and if he is relying on the Jellicoes' photographs, he could have mentioned that wonderful musical chahar bagh that Geoffrey Jellicoe was inspired to lay out at Shute House in Wiltshire. Shalamar was the source for Shute's Rill, but do the cataracts in Kashmir also play harmonic chords as those at Shute do?

There is a modest quality to Turner that leads him to quote descriptions by other writers rather than risk purple prose himself. He is at his critical best quoting that hackneyed passage from Horace Walpole on William Kent's gift for leaping fences and seeing that all nature was a garden. With three deadly factual strikes, he nails the claim as airy Walpolian nonsense and "relentlessly partisan". Previous Baroque gardens did the same thing, the English did not invent the ha-ha, it was a Baroque device, and Pliny had been imitating nature more than a thousand years earlier. Turner quotes Pliny's account of his seaside villa at Laurentinum, where the garden was largely a complex of courts on sandy soil, but then, surprisingly, misses Pliny's more influential account of his mountain villa Tuscum, which is virtually a pre-run of a mid-18th-century Arcadia, or, as Turner calls them, Augustan gardens. That was where Kent would have picked up the fence-leaping trick.

The 19th century is the time when most garden histories falter before the confusion of styles and influences in an over-rich society. This is where Turner excels himself. Slicing through the post-J.C. Loudon eclecticism, he divides the gardens into three: Gardenesque, Landscape Style and Mixed Style. That last might sound something of an umbrella term for anything, but in his "Styles and examples" follow-up to his 1800-1900 chapter, he clarifies it perfectly with accounts of Alton Towers, Branitz, Biddulph Grange and a final glorious quote on mad King Ludwig's Linderhof, where Ludwig recreated the vibrations of Wagner's Tannhäuser by lying on bearskins and drinking mead with his youthful retainers.

It is easy to mock a project as ambitious and populist as Turner's Garden History , with his endearing romantic defence of Marie Antoinette and his dogged insistence that André le Nôtre was "the most distinguished landscape architect since Senenmut", who practised, presumably, in 1450BC. But his book does set up resonances and it should set students and readers off in search of depth and detail. It is to be hoped that some generous body will finance Turner, with a hired car rather than a folding bicycle, to explore the rich backwoods of China and the austerities of Japanese Zen gardens for the second edition of this memorably odd history of gardens.

Timothy Mowl is reader in architectural and garden history, Bristol University.

Garden History: Philosophy and Design 2000BC-2000AD

Author - Tom Turner
Publisher - Spon Press, Taylor & Francis
Pages - 294
Price - £50.00
ISBN - 0 415 31748 7

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