English Gardens in the Twentieth Century from the Archives of Country Life

Posted on January 20th, 2010 by Charles Boot

Tim Richardson, English Gardens in the Twentieth Century from the Archives of Country Life (London: Aurum, 2005), 208 pp., over 240 illus. in colour and black-and-white, £40.00 (hbk), ISBN 1845130715

In the last century, Country Life magazine acquired a biblical status amongst garden historians; back issues were culled for their lavish contemporary images, insights into decades we could never have known, and the accompanying historical articles, which were quoted as the mainstay of so many consultants’ reports. This generous coverage of gardens and their houses, evident from the first issues of 1897, was inspired by the founder and proprietor Edward Hudson’s indulgence of his ailing brother’s pleasure in visiting these places. Hudson wanted Gertrude Jekyll to be the magazine’s first gardens editor and though she declined his offer, pleading she was too busy elsewhere, her verdant influence remained. The ivy-clad union of walls and terraces, pergolas and flowers was honoured down the century as a holy writ by such distinguished editorial names as H. Avray Tipping, Christopher Hussey, John Cornforth and Tony Venison.

Rare treats are thus in the gift of Country Life’s archival publishing and English Gardens in the Twentieth Century is just that, a delectable and desirable volume of time travelling for garden lovers. Perhaps, surprisingly, the black-and- white, full-plate images hold sway until the last but one chapter, and it is only in the early 1980s that colour breaks through: colour clears all extraneous objects and has brought us supertidiness, and scintillatingly bright images that bring our eyes out on stalks but deflect from the view! Black-and-white photographs have room for wit and social comment – just why are Norah Lindsay’s box hedges so moth eaten? Was there ever such a garden for megalomaniacs as Port Lympne? Did ever Old England dream with such enchantment as at Oliver Hill’s Valewood Farm?

‘Old England’s Dreaming 1900–1914’ is the first of Tim Richardson’s chapter titles and, as might be expected from a former Country Lifeman and a Council member of the Garden History Society, his astringent and informative prose dances down the years. Through nine more chapters – including ‘Border Cultists’, ‘From Smart to Art’ and ‘Making it Over 1990–1999’ (this last his forte) – he drops every name that should be dropped, of every gardener, and of the books they read and wrote. From William Robinson to Piet Oudolf, he has conjured a delightful, and rather literary, encyclopaedia of the twentieth century.

My criticism (which perhaps should be directed to the editors) is that this is an uncomfortable book, in that Richardson’s text and the Country Life photographs exist in parallel, but never meet; he seems to have written his twentieth-century story, giving an extensive bibliography, but with little regard for the stated sources – the archives of Country Life. He rejects the magazine’s distinguished list of columnists from Jekyll to Rosemary Verey and Christopher Lloyd, and ignores the magazine’s distinctive way of seeing gardens through the lenses of photographers from the legendary Charles Latham to Jonathan Gibson and Alex Starkey. For over a century the Country Life gardens ethos has had us in thrall; it would be nice to feel that we were grown-up enough to be let into some of the secrets.

Jane Brown

33:2 (Winter 2005)

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