As every gardener is well aware despite careful and deliberate planning their success lies beyond their control, held hostage to the complex realities of natural forces and the multiple dimensions of time and space. In his magnum opus, A Natural History of English Gardening, historic landscape consultant, garden conservator and historian Mark Laird explores this dichotomy, placing the history of the garden at the intersection of ecology and culture; a vibrant, messy place at the nexus of control and chaos.
Laird’s inspiration derives from the writings of Gilbert White, the pioneering naturalist whose 1789 natural history of Selborne intimately records both the natural and cultural forces of a singular English village. In contrast he cites Horace Walpole, owner of the Gothic Revival estate Strawberry Hill, whose popular book The History of the Modern Taste in Gardening, published in 1780, informed the literary genre for many years to follow with its singular focus on taste and heroic designers at the exclusion of “life forms that inhabit the garden.” Its an imbalance that Laird seeks to ameliorate.
To do so A Natural History of English Gardening travels outside the realm of the country house, with its rigidly defined coda of design elements, to explore both the city and court where innovations and explorations in natural history were transforming garden concepts. From the coffee house to the tea room, these are the places where what Laird describes as a “horticultural culture” flourished, shaped by informal groups of plant collectors, nurserymen and botanical scientists.
Laird devotes a chapter to a new world vision of the garden in which plants and animals, both exotic and indigenous, were integrated within the garden, with varying degrees of success. One is reminded of Linnaeus, who famously housed his pet raccoon, Sjupp, at his botanical garden in Uppsala. The 2nd Duke of Richmond’s menagerie, where animals “partnered” with concepts evoking the “American Grove” and Princess Augusta’s Aviary at Kew offer “comparative vignettes of feeling vying with sensibilities.”
Although Laird suggests that A Natural History of English Gardening “inclines to the fragmentary” he identifies three key themes that inform his approach. These include the contribution of women to natural history and gardening, the role of amateurs, both women and men, to the increasingly professionalized, male dominated sciences and the split sensibilities innate to gardening which Gilbert observed and recorded at Selborne.
Laird’s focus on women whom he describes as “engaged patrons of an innovative eden” is extensive and much appreciated. While the work of artist Mary Delany is well known, her circle of influence is less so, including her close association with Mary Cavendish Bentinck, wife of the 2nd duke of Portland. The importance of the domestic arts and the contributions of women naturalists to horticultural innovation provides a new lens in which to view the garden.
A Natural History of English Gardening is a carefully crafted and well-researched, replete with extensive full color illustrations, plans, paintings, journal entries, correspondence and notations. Its seven chapters are preceded by a series of illustrative watercolour, pencil and crayon plates beautifully rendered by the author. At 450 pages in length it is both large and heavy and might possibly be mistaken for a coffee table embellishment belying its depth as a work of scholarship.
This is an important book that provides new insights into the discipline of garden history, a field which is long due for an overhaul. By viewing the cultivated landscape as both a natural and cultural phenomenon, Laird links the past with current concerns including biodiversity, climate change and habitat loss reinforcing the interconnected nature of all life forms, a concept that is as relevant today as ever.
A Natural History of English Gardening
By Mark Laird
New Haven: Yale University Press, 2015
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