by Timothy Mowl

Publisher: Tempus Publishing (2005)
ISBN 0 7524 3436 5

Paperback £17.99

In his ‘Introduction to an off-beat Duchy’, Timothy Mowl announces that ‘the whole point of this book is that it is not yet another glossy guide to the ‘glorious flowering gardens’ of the county, but a sequential and historical survey of Cornwall’s gardens.’  Has he succeeded?

Historic Gardens of Cornwall is the fourth of a proposed county series by Dr Mowl, Co-Director of the Master of Arts garden history programme at Bristol University.  CGT members who heard him speak in March 2005 on ‘In the Steps of Pevsner Discoveries in the Cornish Landscape’, will not be surprised.  They will find here the same lively, thought provoking and (dare one say) provocative style.  Readers less familiar with garden history terminology should be warned that they will meet ‘savage picturesque’, ‘Loudon tendency’, or ‘Batty Langley-style’, among other esoteric categories.  (Although there is an index, the additions of a glossary of garden historical terms, page numbers to gardens listed in the Gazetteer, and a list of illustrations, would have been beneficial.)

The gardens are grouped not strictly chronologically but by theme, in chapters headed (for example): ‘The problem of Arcadian gardens in a naturally Arcadian county’, or ‘Nineteenth-century gardens outside the magic circle of the plant-spotters’.  Some groupings are quirky: the gardens of the staunchly Anglican Lemon of Carclew and Hawkins of Trewithen pop up among ‘The Edens of the Quaker plant-spotters’, for instance.

Here is his description of
‘. the Higher Pond (at Carclew), so dense with flowering plants that it was a temptation to walk on it in order to make a closer inspection of the muscular stone tritons, rising high out of the leaves, and lending a Florentine note to the heady chaos.’ The whole ‘in a state of glorious dilapidation, the very best condition for a garden to be in….’

His prose is always colourful, and when he is in sympathy with his subject, as in ‘Humphrey Repton in a county designed for Picturesque gardening’, Mowl is also knowledgeable and convincing.  On the other hand the pressure of annually researching and writing a different county garden history has allowed incorrect information, especially on events and dates, to remain  unchecked and uncorrected.  In Historic Gardens of Cornwall Mowl has indeed succeeded in writing an original (and opinionated) garden history of Cornwall.  It will make this reviewer assess Cornwall’s gardens in a new light.

Pamela Dodds