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Musings » The Oxford Companion to the Garden
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Patrick Taylor, editor
Oxford -- New York
Oxford University Press 2006

Writing about gardens and garden history is a funny business. I know because I do it from time to time. The difficulty is that the genre doesn’t know what it wants to be when it grows up. For the time being the art historians are rampant, treating the garden as a tangible piece of art, to be coddled and fussed over literarily with all the apparatus of the discipline. This is very fine but it is not the only way to deal with the question. The paradox of the permanent “hardscape” versus the ephemeral nature of the plantings escapes no one who is serious about the matter.

This dichotomy forms the basis of the “great garden divide”. For those lucky enough to attend the recent Horticulture program of that name at the San Francisco Botanical Garden, the matter was debated vigorously by several renowned experts.

Before we reach go any further, there is a very fundamental issue to be discussed. One volume, even as large as both the first and second editions of the companion, can in no way do justice to the size of the topic. Providing even a superficial view of the best gardens in the British Isles alone would need many volumes. Writing about France, Italy, Spain, Turkey and all the other countries with a long and distinguished history of garden-making would lead to the same problem.

Note the use of the title “companion”. The publisher knows perfectly well that its single volumes cannot possibly stand in for a true world-level encyclopaedia and yet an encyclopaedia is what comes to mind when faced with almost 600 pages of closely spaced text.

Almost exactly 20 years ago, the Oxford University Press (affectionately known as OUP) issued The Oxford Companion to Gardens, edited by Sir Geoffrey and Lady Susan Jellicoe. They are known for masterly works on garden design and history. The Landscape of Man recounts human endeavour in creating gardens since pre-history.

In their introduction to the 1986 edition, the Jellicoes laid down their markers. The book would cover the ” art of garden design on a world-wide scale from the earliest records of civilization to the present day”. Garden design was an “art form.” The most far-reaching decision was to exclude gardens which might be very handsome but which did not indicate movement in a trend or have sufficient quality to stand on their design alone.

These criteria led to certain compromises, bundling some topics into general articles and giving special attention to individual places only if that were warranted. The list of contributors was stellar, with almost every well-known garden writer of the time included.

Patrick Taylor has edited the second edition of the companion, now entitled The Oxford Companion to the Garden. How was he to proceed after the auspicious beginning made by the Jellicoes? He has written more than 15 books about gardens, some of which have been singled out for considerable praise. Taylor knows his stuff. He added five associate editors of impeccable reputation and assembled a who’s who of every type of garden writer from numerous countries.

They divided the topics into biography, gardens both public and private and several smaller categories of more technical import such as garden styles and garden issues (aesthetic, theoretical, social and archaeological).

It is always marvellously interesting to read a biography. I pick familiar names at random: Luis Barragan, the ascetic Mexican stylist, Lancelot ( “Capability”) Brown, genius of great parks, Jens Jensen, apostle of the prairie, as well as Continental, South American and Antipodean men and women who have contributed to the great movement of garden design in civilization. These and many others appear here in splendid sketches.

There are some omissions and one could quibble about whether this one or that one should have been included. Here is an example. John Hooper Harvey was a maverick student of garden history with very pronounced tastes and little talent for compromise, something of a gadfly. He operated outside the official circles, having been essentially self-taught and without formal credentials. In spite of that Harvey wrote more serious books and published more scholarly articles than many tenured professors. Harvey was instrumental in founding the Garden History Society.

Only one French nursery is noted, Vilmorin’s in Paris. Given the statement about the world-wide scope of the work it is a pity that the editor did not include anything about two great Continental nurseries, Louis van Houtte of Ghent and the Lemoine dynasty in Nancy, France.

Van Houtte was a pioneer of plant hybridizing at a time when it was theologically suspect in the first decades of the nineteenth century and was the first European to get an Amazon water lily to bloom outside the tropics. He taught Victor Lemoine who gave us practically every modern version of ornamental plant, most particularly, lilac. Lemoine produced so many hybrids year after year that the secretary of the local horticultural society in Nancy complained. When he grew old his son and later his grandson took up the task.

When it comes to specific gardens there are few objective standards. Inevitably including one rather than another comes down to taste. Lionel de Rothschild’s collection of prize rhododendrons at Exbury is not listed. Alnwick in Northumberland, a pioneer in modern garden design and planting, is also absent. Happily one of my favourites does appear, the Gulbenkian Garden in Lisbon. Mexico, gigantic source of plants and garden philosophy in North America, is represented by a measly three places. That is an insult.

Both the Jellicoes and Patrick Taylor must have known they were condemned to leap from peak to peak in this volume and leave 90 % of the material down in the hidden valleys. They chose to do it in slightly different ways. The second edition is suitably glossy for current taste, compared to the slightly austere and more usual type of university publication of the first. As the reader can tell I like what I see but lament the editorial and business decisions which led to so many omissions.