THE ENGLISH GARDEN: A SOCIAL HISTORY

by Charles Quest-Ritson

Publisher: Penguin (2003)
ISBN   0 1402 9502 X

£14.99

512JMA5M12L

In a key phrase introducing this book Charles Quest-Ritson states that ‘we need to know why people garden’. While rich and eminent men showed off their gardens as a means of self-aggrandisement, for centuries monks were quietly growing medicinal herbs and   country people were eking out a sparse diet by what they grew.  Painters and writers have recorded the design and beauty of great landscapes but this book covers new ground; it is a seminal work on the social background.

The fame of English gardens grew through the investment and enthusiasm of aristocratic society of the Renaissance until the end of the 19th century, when it was continued through a growing class of new patrons, many of them self-made industrialists.  Perhaps the last chapter, From Riches to Rags to Riches, is the most interesting.  Quest-Ritson analyses the changing financial structure in the gardening world.  Post Great War, higher taxation and increased death duties soon reduced the inherited wealth of landowners.  Garden creators such as Sassoon and Rothschild might be classed as ‘new money’, but the author applauds their beautiful gardens created in the inter-war years, such as Exbury, Port Lympney, and Anglesey.  Even such wealth could not fund the elaborate bedding scheme, starting a change in gardening fashion to a new appreciation of shrubs and permanent planting.

Generously annotated, this book is very well written, superbly printed and richly illustrated -a real bargain at under £15 – and warrants constant reference and re-reading.

Jean Sneyd