THE PLEASURE GARDEN: An Illustrated History of British Gardening

by Anne Scott-James & Osbert Lancaster

Publisher:  Frances Lincoln (2004)
ISBN  0 7112 2360 2

Paperback, £9.99


I leapt at the invitation to review this reissue of The Pleasure Garden, originally published by John Murray in 1977. I have long revelled in Osbert Lancaster’s entertaining text and telling pen and ink drawings in Pillar to Post: English Architecture without Tears (1938), and Draynflete Revealed (1949) – this last, a tongue in cheek account of an imaginary town in the style (formerly) typical of all too many local histories.

Frances Lincoln has performed a valuable service to garden historians by reissuing this long out of print classic. A collaboration between Osbert Lancaster and his wife, the garden writer Anne Scott James, The Pleasure Garden fully deserves its reputation.  In his drawings, Osbert Lancaster captures the essential features of gardens from Roman to modern times with the same acuity and wit he had shown in his books on buildings.  Anne Scott James wrote eighteen pithy ‘essays’ (averaging five pages) to accompany the set, ‘on which my husband was suddenly and unexpectedly moved to embark.’

While this is a visual and eminently readable introduction to the evolution of British gardens, I have two minor reservations. The bibliography, intended as a guide to further study, has not been updated from the original edition. The intervening years have seen an explosion of books and journals on the subject. The Journal of the Garden History Society, for example, is not included. The passage of time has moved the history of gardens beyond the patio of 1977. These quibbles apart, The Pleasure Garden is a remarkably concise and comprehensive introduction to garden history, with the significant bonus that it is delightfully illustrated and written.

Osbert Lancaster died in 1986, and Anne Scott James is now 92. The Pleasure Garden will be enjoyed by everyone interested in British gardens, and (note) especially Garden History Trust recorders.

Pam Dodds