Garden design usually breaks out of its confines to become part of the general consciousness only in Chelsea Flower Show week, but this year there have been so many events to mark the tercentenary of the birth of Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown — the most prolific and talented designer of the 18th-century landscape garden — that even the general public has noticed. Most events have occurred under the umbrella of the Capability Brown Partnership, the brainchild of a landscape historian called John Phibbs, who has spent several decades studying Brown’s 170-odd landscapes and advising some of the owners on their recovery, care and conservation.
Capability Brown: Designing the English Landscape (Rizzoli, £45) describes 15 Brown ‘landskips’ in chronological progression. Some, like Blenheim and Chatsworth, are extremely well known; others, such as Himley Hall and Moccas Court, were certainly new to me. This book contains superb photographs by Joe Cornish and can be warmly recommended with only one small caveat: the author assumes that the reader understands topography as he does. Some modern plans would have helped.
A few miles from Stowe, where Brown laid out the ‘Grecian valley’ for the 18th-century Whig politician Viscount Cobham, is Thenford House, owned by a 20th-century politician of a different stripe. Thenford: The Creation of an English Garden (Head of Zeus, £40) is a handsomely-produced book, in which Michael Heseltine and his wife, Anne, describe their garden’s development over 40 years. Lord Heseltine announces straightaway that he is very rich, which has the signal virtue of being honest. As gardeners know, £50 notes make the best manure and the Heseltines — driven by the true collector’s love of plants, especially trees and shrubs — have committed masses of cash and all their limited leisure to creating an enormous and spectacular garden. They have not done it alone. Since 1977, they have consulted a variety of experts — Lanning Roper, Harold Hillier, George Carter, Robert Adams and Quinlan Terry among them — to help do the vision thing.
Through all the changing scenes of political life, in trouble and in joy, Thenford garden has plainly been a very important and private retreat for the Heseltines. Now they want to tell the world what they’ve made. There are precedents for faux self-deprecating gardening memoirs (and political ones, come to that), but you give the game away if you chronicle your mistakes and disasters, then slip in, from time to time, ‘when I was deputy prime minister’ or mention that the lawn made ‘a perfect helipad for a minister of aerospace and subsequently defence secretary’. This book might have been better written by someone else.
Thenford inevitably shows the marks of a number of professional hands, and the same is true of Highgrove, part of which formed an early commission for Isabel and Julian Bannerman, the talented and agreeably wacky garden architects, much beloved of the rich-but-arty crowd. Landscape of Dreams (Pimpernel Press, £50), describes their eclectic designs both for large gardens and the stage-set garden buildings in them. Amongst their demonstrable successes are Houghton Hall in Norfolk, Asthall Manor in Oxfordshire and their own old house, Hanham Court near Bristol. The Bannermans are artists but they can also write; I particularly enjoyed Isabel’s account of their extraordinary childhoods. Although I can’t be doing with all those signature antlers, rusticated wooden columns, mock Gothic ruins and tree roots, the layouts the Bannermans devise are imaginative, coherent and, perhaps surprisingly, commonsensical. The photographs in the book are generously scattered, helpful but variable in quality.
Informed criticism of what contemporary designers are up to is hard to find, but you can depend on Tim Richardson — the best, indeed almost the only, garden polemicist we’ve got. His anthology of journalism in a variety of publications, including the Daily Telegraph and the trade magazine, Garden Design Journal, is entitled You Should Have Been Here Last Week (Pimpernel Press, £16.99). In these articles, he examines, probes, even sticks the stiletto into, current practices and preoccupations. A man who admits he turned to gardens as a result of his love of 18th-century poetry has something of the Joseph Addison about him. I particularly recommend his essays on why the design of most small gardens is dreadful, and the pleasures and pitfalls of viewing gardens at night.
Finally, a book that reinforces my belief that anyone who writes well can write something worthwhile about gardening. Rhapsody in Green by Charlotte Mendelson (Kyle, £16.99) contains short chapters, essays really, by a novelist known for her witty, observant, uncomfortable anatomisations of contemporary life (such as Daughters of Jerusalem and When We Were Bad). In this book she simply describes her impressively fruitful engagement with six square metres of north London soil. I learned nothing about gardening but much about why we do it. And it made me cry with laughter.