garden tales from a Brit at home and abroad
Landscape history is a fast-growing academic field (excuse the pun), with new university courses being set up and increasing numbers of conferences arranged and books published. But there are still few publications that offer a general survey of the history of designed landscapes.
Ten years ago, when I was studying the topic at Harvard’s Landscape Institute, we used Norman T. Newton’s Design on the Land as our basic text. It was generally an excellent introduction, although already 30 years old and with a focus mainly on the history of Western landscapes.
Recently I offered some advice on landscape history curriculum development to a local university, and was surprised to realise that not much seems to have changed in ten years. Newton’s book is still widely used, as is Geoffrey and Susan Jellicoe’s 1975 work, The Landscape of Man. More recent surveys include the glossy Landscape Design: A Cultural and Architectural History published in 2001 by Elizabeth Barlow Rogers, and Tom Turner’s chatty series on the history and philosophy of Asian Gardens (2010), European Gardens (2011) and British Gardens (2013).
John Dixon Hunt, one of the most distinguished and thought-provoking landscape history scholars, has recent joined the fray. According to the publishers, his 2012 book A World of Gardens “takes us on a world tour of different periods in the making of gardens.”
The book has received mixed reviews. The indomitable Penelope Hobhouse, writing in The Garden, saw it as “a comprehensive work of great value; a giant distillation of the author’s knowledge; a reference book that makes many earlier histories almost irrelevant.” Writing for Times Higher Education, however, Professor Timothy Mowl attacked the book with relish, dismissing it as “intellectually compromised… woefully light on recent scholarship… frustrating… tiresome… confused.”
My own take (in a review originally published in Historic Gardens Review) is that, especially given its title, the book has a regrettably uneven feel. There are some areas where Hunt’s mastery of the subject oozes from the page: the chapter on “Betweenity,” for instance, effortlessly uses Walpole, Addison, Shaftesbury and Switzer (as well as the Victorian architect John D. Sedding) to produce a nuanced picture of the gradual transition from Le Nôtre to Kent, and the distinctive nature of the gardens in this ‘between’ period.
Other chapters are less assured. Hunt readily admits to no personal knowledge of many of the gardens he covers and to being reliant on the scholarship of others. Thus he offers a standard analysis of Japanese, Persian and Indian gardens interspersed with curious examples of the style: much of the chapter on Japanese gardens describes Noguchi’s work in the US and Paris, while the discussion of Mughal gardens ends with details of a 21st century park in Cairo and a recent garden for Pakistani immigrants in Bradford.
The book is finely illustrated, with plans, sketches, paintings and photographs, most of them well reproduced and informative although, frustratingly for the reader, many illustrations are on a different page from the reference in the text.
A World of Gardens is perhaps not vintage Hunt, but the best parts are still full of the intellect and verve that have made his work a pleasure for so many of us for so long. It is a good supplement to existing surveys of landscape history but, sadly, certainly not a replacement for them.