The Afterlife of Gardens

Posted on January 19th, 2010 by Charles Boot

John Dixon Hunt, The Afterlife of Gardens (London: Reaktion, 2004), 254 pp., illus. in black-and-white, £25.00 (hbk), ISBN 1- 8618-9218-7

At a time when heritage garden visiting continues to increase as a leisure activity (over 11.5 million recorded visits in England in 2003*), John D.  Hunt’s book on the ways that gardens are (and have been) experienced by their visitors brings new insights to our understanding of garden history. Those familiar with Hunt’s previous work will not be surprised, however, to find that this publication is not a straightforward account of why and how we enjoy visiting gardens, but an attempt to develop a reception theory for gardens and designed landscapes. Reception theory (evidently used widely in the other arts, particularly literature) shifts the emphasis from the design and implementation of a landscape to how it is received by later visitors — its ‘afterlife’ (a literary reference to W. H. Auden’s text on the life of W. B. Yeats’s poetry after his death). The value of reception history was briefly discussed by Hunt in the closing chapter of his recent Greater Perfections (2000) and here he develops his theme on the need to provide a conceptual framework to explore ‘how sites are experienced, often through a longue durée of existence, change and reformulation’ (p. 7).

The book is a collection of eight essays by Hunt of mainly reworkings of previous published texts or lectures (as he admits in the Preface). In the first (new) chapter, he explains how reception theory not only links the past and present through analysis of visitor responses at different periods in history, but also provides ‘a remarkable resource, if we are trying to understand how the phenomenal, material world of gardens is received in the minds and imaginations of those who encounter it’ (p. 15). This theme is further explored in succeeding chapters, which describe how sites ranging from the fictional garden of Francesco Colonna’s Hypnerotomachia poliphili (Venice, 1499) to the later gardens at Versailles and Stowe, Buckinghamshire, can ‘trigger the imaginations of their visitors’, often resulting in a panoply of words and images, best exemplified by the Picturesque where words were invoked to ‘enhance the full visual and sensual appeal of a garden for its visitors’ (p. 92). Moving through a landscape also contributes to this experience and Hunt, less convincingly, extends this to an analogy of motorway travel and ways of enhancing landscape reception ‘on the move’.

The final chapter attempts to demonstrate how a reception theory of gardens can be applied to ‘the ongoing practice of design and its analysis’ (p. 195) and raises many issues of interest to both the garden historian and the practitioner. For instance, to what extent does the modern designer take account of the responses of those who might encounter his new landscape? Are the documented responses of ‘those who bring a full repertoire of knowledge to their visit’ (p. 199) more ‘valuable’ than those of the ‘casual, hurried or inexperienced’ visitor? Should a designer imbue his landscape with ‘meaning’ and, if he does, should this be explained to the visitor, thus channelling responses ‘along established and preordained lines’ (p. 200)? For example, how are the gardens of Ian Hamilton Finlay received by those who cannot translate the Latin inscriptions? Should the visitor be allowed purely to enjoy the ‘whole, haptic, sensual experience of landscape’ (p. 205) without the information provided by guidebooks and interpretation boards?

The Afterlife of Gardens is not an easy read and is not helped by the publisher’s choice of a textbook layout and poor quality black-andwhite images. Professor Hunt’s interdisciplinary and academic approach demands an equally broad knowledge on the part of the reader, and it is tempting to skip the less readable sections (particularly those covered in his earlier publications). But perseverance is worthwhile, as this book raises important, topical issues for all those concerned with the design, conservation and interpretation of designed landscapes.

Barbara Simms

31:2 (Summer 2004)

*  English Heritage, Heritage Counts 2004: The State of England’s Historic Environment (London: English Heritage, 2004), p. 107.

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