Tim Richardson’s new book, The New English Garden, is a beautifully photographed, sensuously appealing volume slathered with full-page photographs and huge double-page spreads so large you feel you could fall into them. The book is a hedonistic delight and a source of many hour’s diversion and, if you’re so inclined, a pleasant opportunity for learning. Having my own recent experience with photographers who don’t know how to photograph gardens, the impressive work of photographers Andrew Lawson, Jane Sabire, and Rachel Warne is executed with knowledge and skill. One could hardly do better than study the photographs in this book to learn something about how to do it right.
More important, if not as visually eye-catching, is Richardson’s text. This isn’t filler. Richardson looks at each garden in the context of several influences prevalent in British gardening over the past several decades, influences he believes have marked new directions: the New Perennials style (Piet Oudolf at Scramston Hall and Bury Court, Henk Gerritsen at Waltham Place) since the mid-1990s, England’s own self-born roots in a the naturalistic style as exemplified most notably by Beth Chatto and carried forward by Dan Pearson and others, formalism and tradition as refined in new gardens by George Carter and Jacques and Peter Wirtz that go far beyond mere recreations of traditional design, old gardens such as Pettifers revitalized by the lively new ideas of Gina Price, even the occasional unique (truly) iconoclast such as Keith Wiley at his new garden Wildside, an exercise in landforming and new planting on a massive scale and, vastly different, Christine Facer’s Througham Court, which Richardson says “could best be categorized as of the Charles Jencks School of Cosmic Gardening.”
There are many more gardens in this extraordinarily beautiful book. Among my personal favorites are Dan Pearson’s work at Armscote Manor, a Jacobean manor house where he reworked a series of walled and hedge-enclosed garden rooms in a naturalistic style so light-handed and sensitive you might not notice it. One of the opening photos of this garden, eremurus lilies mixed with a stand of coyote willows (Salix exigua), is magic. Also a favorite is Tom Stuart-Smith’s extraordinary melding of elements of traditional English border design with the New Perennials influence at Mount St John, and his masterful work with Piet Oudolf at Trentham. Also of note is Christopher Bradley-Hole’s New Perennials-influenced garden at Crockmore House, made, as usual, on a grid system that disappears as the plants mature, and his gridded grass and perennial garden contrasting with Piet Oudolf’s garden (on the opposite side of the house) at Bury Court. I also have to mention the delicate new double border designed by James Alexander-Sinclair and the more structural design elements by Arne Maynard at Cottesbrooke Hall.
Only two gardens make me question why they are in this book. Highgrove, the Prince of Wale’s garden, and The Laskett, Sir Roy Strong’s garden, both of which have received substantial criticism. While recognizing their faults, Richardson attempts to explore their virtues. I wasn’t convinced. It’s certainly possible to think they were included to improve the sales of this book (not a bad marketing strategy), but one can make a good case for evaluating two such widely known and disputed gardens simply to clarify what they have to offer and to propose an objective critical conclusion. Richardson is wont to pursue intellectual challenges so this may just show his desire to win a point or two in a difficult case.
Will Americans buy this book?
Many American gardeners seem to exhibit a knee-jerk rejection of most things English, though that happily seems to be diminishing. They may have the same reaction to this review, which throws garden names they may not know at them willy-nilly. I think the usual reason for this negative reaction is that our climate is so different that anything the British do or say seems irrelevant. But there’s a little too much vehemence in this rejection of all things British. After 300 years of American gardening culture, do we still feel inferior? Richardson doesn’t think so. His most recent “big book” was Great Gardens of America.
It’s too bad really, because we miss so much. We have a tremendous amount to learn about planting design by studying how plants behave in various climatic conditions, and not just in England. I don’t mean to characterize Tim Richardson’s The New English Garden as a plant book, which it most definitely is not, but the fine photography shows beautiful planting designs that can spark new ideas.
So for us in North America, Tim Richardson’s The New English Garden should be much more than a puny voice crying in the wilderness. Though not directed to the North American audience in particular, it’s a well written, intelligent, questioning, and stimulating overview of the effects of broad movements and individual genius on the course of English garden design in the past several decades. Anyone with an open mind and a desire to learn new things can easily sort out what works in England from what might be of value in the US.
This is far more than the usual coffee table book on gardens, with extraordinary photography and intelligent text conceived and written by one of the most learned and perceptive writers on gardening in the English Language. Needless to say it would make a great holiday gift.