Friday, 10 July 2015

A Natural History of English Gardening

As we pass the half-way point in his Nightshelf series, Stephen Town starts to reflect on how he might spend his time after retirement.

Laird, M., A Natural History of English Gardening, 1650 - 1800, in the University library at LA 2 LAI.

Garden pests come in all shapes
and sizes. Image reproduced from
our Special Collections
The most common assumption about retirement, and one strongly held by my wife, is that I will have more time for gardening when I retire. In truth, I may actually spend more time reading about gardening, and this book would be a good place to start. It is not exactly easy nightshelf material, as it is a large and sumptuously illustrated title, produced by Yale University Press for the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art; coincidentally this is where our former History of Art colleague Mark Hallett is now Director of Studies.

This is, however, no coffee table book. Although, anyone interested might gain great pleasure just by looking at the illustrations. It is, as the Guardian reviewer suggested, a work of both scholarship and beauty. Mark Laird is a knowledgeable scholar and an accomplished writer, and he and the book have associations with our University, York and Yorkshire which are documented carefully in his acknowledgments.

Photo: Stephen Town. Redressing the balance between
nature and geometry in my own springtime garden.
The title was consciously chosen as a ‘natural history’ to reflect the multidisciplinary breadth of the subject of gardens, and is particularly interesting on the subject of weather in the period documented, which all we gardeners know can ‘subvert the best-laid schemes’. This book brings together successfully all those disparate elements which influenced the art, science and practice of gardening in the eighteenth century, in a set of chapter essays which could each be read alone. The book seeks to redress a perceived bias arising from Walpole in the perceptions of modern English garden taste for ‘nature’ and against geometry and formalism, as I also try to do in my own garden. The book also recovers the significant contributions of both women and amateurs to the development of gardens in this period.

Gardening is, in the end, a joy, and this book fully reflects that.

Further reading:

Books from the Garden History Society Special Collection can be found in King's Manor Library and the University's Special Collections located in the Borthwick Institute for Archives.

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