Book Reviews, Landscape History

A Short History of Gardens by Gordon Campbell

October 22, 2017

Garden history books come in all shapes and sizes. In this pocket-sized compendium, Gordon Campbell, a Fellow in Renaissance Studies at the University of Leicester and the British Academy, dispenses with the usual endless photographs and historical images found in most over-sized tomes to present a clear and comprehensively written account of the history of gardens. The result couldn’t be more refreshing.

Giusto Utens, lunette depicting Il Trebbio, Museo di Firenze com’era, Florence

In nine chapters, Campbell traces the evolution of the garden in both eastern and western cultures. From the ancient gardens of Persia to twenty-first century designs that are responsive to global warming, it can all be found within A Short History of Gardens. At approximately 200 pages which include a glossary and suggestions for further reading, the 5 x 7 inch book is a “little book about big ideas.”

Le Bassin d’Apollon a Versailles, showing the flotilla on the Grand Canal, c.1705

A Short History of Gardens is more than a globe-trotting historical tour of the world’s iconic gardens. In the course of what is described as his professional duties (would that mine provided such opportunities) Campbell has visited more than 70 countries and every continent. Along the way he has visited many gardens, both grand and modest, and he uses these experiences to provide what he describes as “feet on the ground” with a bias towards gardens that are open to the public.

Bridge over a Pond of Water Lilies by Claude Monet, 1899. H. O. Havemeyer Collection of the Metropolitan Museum, Bequest of Mrs. H. O. Havemeyer, 1929

An introduction begins with the questions, “What is garden?” and “What do gardens mean?” setting the stage for Campbell to explore the history of gardens within cultural, spiritual and historical contexts. The interdependence of humans to the natural world and the partnership between human activity and a “compliant natural world” is explored.

Egyptian wall-painting of an ornamental pool from the tomb of Nebamun at Thebes, c.1350 BC, British Museum

Campbell asserts that the contours of garden history as a discipline are not well defined and acknowledges the debt paid to those “amateur” historians whose expertise lies outside the walls of the university setting. Describing gardens as an art form that interact with nature, he proceeds to deliver a “little book” that is a history of that art.

Garden fresco from Livia’s Villa at Prima Porta. Museo Nazionale Romano, Rome

In A Short History of Gardens, Campbell embraces gardens in all their complexities, integrating the present with the past within a historical and cultural context. From parks and fruit and vegetable gardens to ornamental and formal gardens, he provides a concise and easily readable narrative of their evolution. The result, although described as short, is absolutely perfect, providing an overview of garden history that is succinct, comprehensive and readable. What more can one ask for?

This review appeared in Leaflet A Massachusetts Horticultural Society Publication, October, 2017

Copyright © 2017 Patrice Todisco — All Rights Reserved

 

 

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