Book Reviews

Book Review: Oxford College Gardens

May 1, 2016

Oxford College Gardens

While staying in London last June I took the train to Oxford to visit the Botanic Garden. It had been nearly thirty years since I was last there and I had fond memories (and somewhat fading slides) of the garden, the Broad Walk and Christ Church Meadow, a riverine environment that for me at the time embodied all that is special about the English landscape.

The Botanic Garden, founded in 1621, is the oldest in Britain and easily found. Not so the myriad assortment of gardens and landscapes hidden behind the perimeter walls of the 38 self-governing, financially independent colleges which comprise the University.

Merton college, Oxford. Ceanothus trained on wall.

Merton College, Oxford. Ceanothus trained on wall: c/o Frances Lincoln, an imprint of Quarto Publishing Group

In Oxford College Gardens landscape historian Tim Richardson shares the secrets of what lies behind those storied walls. It is here that the physical fabric of the University, informed by the synergy of its of landscape and architecture, has been shaped by time and the imprint of those who have lived and worked in each college.

While every college is distinct, informed by its own history and character, at the heart of each is the landscape; lawns, private ‘fellows’ gardens, groves, walks, meadows, lakes and deer parks. These are shared with the reader through Richardson’s lively text and brought to life by Andrew Lawson’s full-color photographs. Maps, historical images and contemporary plans of each college are also provided.

Worcester College, Oxford

Worcester College: Oxford c/o Frances Lincoln, an imprint of Quarto Publishing Group

The breadth of garden styles portrayed within Oxford College Gardens is sweeping, ranging from the conventional quadrangles of University, Merton and Balliol Colleges to the modernist landscape of Saint Catherine’s College, designed by Danish architect Arne Jacobsen as a “landscape with buildings set within.” Eschewing judgement as to their design or landscape history, Richardson presents colleges alphabetically, beginning with the aptly named All Souls and concluding with Worcester College.

Special attention is paid to the gardeners who over time have both designed and lovingly tended individual college landscapes including Balliol head gardener Christopher Munday who in 2013 propagated a vivid magenta dahlia specimen to celebrate the college’s 750th anniversary which can be seen today in the college’s front quad herbaceous border.

George Harris, head gardener of Saint Hugh’s, is quoted upon his retirement in 1972 after 45 years of service as responding to the sentiment that the garden would never be the same without him, “You can’t expect it to be.” An appendix provides a list of head gardeners as of 2014.

At more than 300 pages in length Oxford College Gardens is a large book, just over 5 pounds in weight. Would that it were smaller and could serve as a guide to carry when visiting the spaces it depicts with such grace and erudition.

All Souls College, Oxford

All Souls College, Oxford:  c/o Frances Lincoln, an imprint of Quarto Publishing Group

That said, there are many who will enjoy this compendium of all things Oxford, a place where “windows open onto other worlds” including its gardens.

Oxford College Gardens by Tim Richardson with Photographs by Andrew LawsonFrances Lincoln Limited, London: 2015

This review appeared in Leaflet A Massachusetts Horticultural Society Publication, April, 2016.

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  • Reply Of Gardens May 2, 2016 at 12:35 am

    I have spent quite a lot of time in Oxford, and have visited many of the colleges you mention, in all different seasons. A few years ago I was even given a tour of St John’s private garden, which (I believe) is the largest of the Oxford gardens. I did not know about Tim Richardson’s latest book, I may have to seek it out. Thanks for the heads up.

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