Twenty years ago, gardening books never made it to the coffee table. The reader had to supply the glamorous illustrations. It was a bit like the difference between listening to the wireless and watching telly. I remember Mark Boxer, who was a publisher then, saying, ‘Once garden books start using pictures, they will sell in big numbers.’ They do, but they date and yesterday’s aspirational title is soon remaindered. This year, there are some picture books which should last longer than most, if only because they provide records of important gardens. The Country Life archive has been a good source of images, although only those that have been featured in the magazine are included, so these volumes can never present a true picture of design at the chosen moment. The latest volume, English Gardens in the Twentieth Century edited by Tim Richardson (Aurum Press, £40), contains some fascinating examples of how toffs used to surround their houses, including plenty of horror shots of how not to garden now. It is bad luck that Oliver Hill will be remembered for veering between the monumentality of Moor Close and the modernity of Joldwynds, rather than for the garden he made in later years at Daneway House which reconciled these two traditions. He was, Richardson writes, ‘an awkward character to categorise’.
The problem with a book like this is that every picture tells the story the selector wants to tell. Sissinghurst, Richardson feels, is overrated. He contrasts its ‘genial aristocratic unruliness’ with Hidcote’s ‘clarity of design and uncompromising originality’. He judges the famous Kent garden to have been an exercise in shabby chic, which is what it looks like from the photograph of ‘the ramshackle farm tumble’ of the cottage garden in 1942. Seeing the cottage garden, with the central yew pillars out of shot and the planting so wispy and wild, makes you wonder why visitors flocked, until you remember that when the picture was taken the country was at war. In 1941, there was one epileptic under- gardener left to help at Sissinghurst. The flowerbeds and hedges suffered and lawns were left for hay. This was the year the chatelaine’s private life was in turmoil. Virginia Woolf committed suicide, Violet Trefusis returned to England and the following spring Vita’s book Grand Canyon was rejected by Hogarth Press. Any garden would look dishevelled at such a time, but none of this features in Richardson’s book. What the author also neglects to tell us, what can never be pictured on the page, is the atmosphere of the garden, the deeply rooted connection with the wider landscape and the past that mattered so much to Vita Sackville West. I suspect it was the poetry of the place, never its design or its flower arrangements, that kept people returning.
At Hidcote, Richardson states, the set piece effects, ‘in their ungrandiloquent intensity, seem to eclipse those in every other contemporary garden’. This verbiage is the sort of fuddle which gets readers reaching for short words, but much of his commentary is provocative; as long as you remember how much is left out and that this is style-speak, not gospel.
A notable absence from the Country Life book is the garden made by the Marchioness of Salisbury at Hatfield. One paragraph mentions the pioneer Knot Garden, but there are no photographs. Luckily for us, Sue Snell visited Hatfield over a period of seven years and her pictures, combined with an introduction by Lady Salisbury in The Gardens at Hatfield (Frances Lincoln, £25), provide a ravishing record of the place. Cutting-edge design was never the aim at Hatfield, but the historic- nostalgic approach adopted by Lady Salisbury was unusual in its day and set a fashion for garden restorations.
Hatfield and Hampton Court attract very different reactions from modern visitors. Julian Bannerman, the garden designer who has done some remarkable work at Highgrove and who is another omission from Richardson’s 20th-century round-up, said to me at the opening of the Privy Garden, ‘If it looks wrong, it must be right.’ To modern eyes, historic gardens unfiltered through nostalgia always look like ‘how not to’ shots. At Hampton Court the sparsely planted beds with dots and spots of flowers look extraordinary and very ‘wrong’, but this is one of the most accurate restorations ever completed. The man in charge of advising on the garden at Hampton Court Palace, Todd Longstaffe-Gowan, is a scholar and designer. His book, The Gardens and Parks at Hampton Court Palace (Frances Lincoln, £25), has a meticulously researched and lively text. The book is an object of beauty, because Vivian Russell’s photographs fail to make the garden look as ‘wrong’ as I remember it. She is a photographer who is incapable of composing an ugly shot.
Another history book in paperback, A History of Kitchen Gardening by Susan Campbell (Frances Lincoln, £14.99), has hand-drawn illustrations by the author instead of photographs. This definitive work is the update of the earlier Charlston Kedding by the same author, which was judged a bit whimsical by scholars, because it was a semi-fictionalised account of several kitchen gardens. The new edition contains all the research, with no upstairs downstairs imaginings about boxes of vegetables being packed up for the family in London. It is elegantly presented and extremely useful. Old growing techniques for forcing vegetables or delaying the ripening of fruit are clearly explained, proving that historic gardens can still provide how to garden advice.
Glossy, but hard working, is a rare occurrence in any book. A recent monograph, Orchids of the British Isles by Michael Foley and Sidney Clarke (Griffin Press, £45), is for plant-hunters who never leave these shores. This is the definitive orchid-seekers book, the first major study for 40 years, with an authoritative text that includes advice on how to grow the most elusive and varied of our wild flowers.
Gloss-free read of the year is another book about elusive plants. Among Flowers: A Walk in the Himalaya by Jamaica Kincaid (National Geographic Directions, £12.99), like the wireless, leaves everything to the imagination. The black-and-white pictures taken by the author are so dim and old- fashioned that they hardly count. What does count is the writing. Jamaica Kincaid, the famous American novelist, is mad about gardens, so she tagged on to a plant-hunting expedition with Dan Hinkley who owns Heronswood, the best nursery in the States, and Bleddyn and Sue Wynn-Jones of Cr