by Andrew Eburne and Richard Taylor

Publisher:  Ebury Press (2006)
ISBN 9780091909000.

Hardback  £25


Illustrated throughout in colour and black and white.

The reassuring words ‘How to’ in the title of this handsome book suggest that  its readers will be offered guidance, and should allay their suspicions that How to read an English Garden will be merely another excuse for a series of elegantly composed photographs of well-known gardens in contrasting seasons. It is not; indeed the beautifully reproduced photographs are always relevant to the point under discussion, and its numerous woodcuts and engravings are interesting and informative.

The prospective reader, on the other hand, might conjecture that its factual content will merely reproduce the information already supplied by a growing list of popular books on garden history. Categorically this book does not claim to be a ‘garden history book’. Its authors’ avowed aim, using their considerable garden history experience, is to explain ‘each of the many elements that make up the historic garden and how they got there’, and it fulfils this promise admirably. The text is clearly, often wittily written, and is pleasantly informative on how to understand the familiar -orchards and ponds – or how to interpret and date the less familiar – quincunxes and mounts. It lists garden styles and influences as well as major designers, and examines the social context in which they worked.

The introduction clarifies how the authors will set about their task, indicating initially how gardens inevitably change in that they reflect their creators’ perception of the uses of these spaces: from the functional medieval ‘hortus conclusus’ to the vast landscape gardens inspired by the philosophical axioms of the eighteenth century picturesque. The book is effectively set out in chapters examining key features with intriguing titles such as ‘Arriving’, ‘Food’, and ‘Sticks and Stones’. Each chapter is then sub-divided under headings so that it can be used as a handbook as well as an accessible survey of the components of historic gardens; for example, the chapter on ‘Flowers and Grasses’ includes a ‘Travelogue’ listing the provenance of well-known garden flowers.  Suggestions for further reading and a gazetteer of relevant gardens are also provided.

Altogether this is an informative and practical addition to the bookshelf of the garden lover and the amateur garden historian alike.

Angela Stubbs