Book Reviews

Enjoy reviews of books from around the world in the magazine and the newsletters.

Oxford University Press. 350 pages. £25.00.
ISBN 978-0-19-871470-5.

Menagerie: The History of Exotic Animals in England by Caroline Grigson; reviewed by Mark Tunningly

Today we all know what animals look like because television programmes have shown us the range of creation from the whale to the microbe. But what would it be like to come across a rhinoceros if you had never even seen a picture of one?

When an elephant presented to George III’s Queen Charlotte was paraded through the streets of London in 1763, a young lady fainted at such an apparition. George’s father, Prince Frederick (‘Poor Fred’) went one better: he had a quagga, a now extinct species of zebra.

In Menagerie: The History of Exotic Animals in England Caroline Grigson, zoologist and museum curator, tells how royalty and nobility sought to embellish their estates and to create awe and wonder among their neighbours by importing strange beasts from the ends of the earth. We learn that Henry I (r1100-1135) built a park at his palace at Woodstock (Oxfordshire) for “lions, leopards, camels and lynxes” while Henry III (r1216-1272) was given an elephant and let his polar bear swim in the Thames.

The importation of animals became much more commercialised but as late as the 18th century the landed gentry felt that a moose, a zebra or a pair of cheetahs in one’s park gave them the edge over the viscount next door. Parks were adapted to accommodate the menageries, such as that created in 1771 by Queen Charlotte in the ‘Capability’ Brown designed grounds of Richmond Lodge. This well-researched book is also jolly and much recommended.

Women Garden Designers: 1900 to the Present
by Kristina Taylor
Garden Art Press. 288 pages. £35.00.
ISBN 978-1-870-67381-5.

Women Garden Designers reviewed by Gillian Mawrey

Women horticulturalists have been receiving a lot of attention recently. Kristina Taylor includes thirty-one of them in her roll-call of female garden designers, a selection so arbitrary the reader wants to cry “What, no Alvilde Lees-Milne, no .....” – which proves how rich the corpus is on which the author had to draw. Her start date is a little arbitrary, too, as she begins with Gertrude Jekyll and Beatrix Farrand, who very much began their careers in the 19th century: but she does continue right up to the present, ending with gardens made in the current decade. Guessing which of these will be regarded as interesting in a further century’s time is a fool’s game. Those by Jinny Blom at the Chelsea Flower Show, for instance, were never intended to last – though even the ephemeral can be influential.

Taylor’s introduction raises the question of whether men and women design gardens differently, and she tells us firmly that she is not going to provide an answer.
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English Country House

The English Country House Garden: Traditional Retreats to Contemporary Masterpieces by George Plumptre

Photographs by Marcus Harper
Frances Lincoln: 208pp: £25 or $40. ISBN 978-0-7112-3299-0

The current trend in coffee-table garden books is to select a score or so major English (Scottish, French, etc.) gardens and to send a top-class garden photographer (here Marcus Harper) round them at their seasonal peak. An established garden writer (here George Plumptre) is then chosen to write a competent if, sometimes, a tad pedestrian accompanying text. A lavish but reasonably priced book appears and voilà: Aunt Charlotte’s Christmas present solved. The English Country House Garden is at the upper end of this genre and chooses some less well-known gardens such as Felley Priory (Nottinghamshire) and Exbury (Hampshire).
Oxford College Gardens
Oxford College Gardens by Tim Richardson
photographs by Andrew Lawson
Frances Lincoln. 320 pages. £40.00.
ISBN 978-0-7112-3218-1

Oxford College Gardens reviewed by Gillian Mawrey

Treading bravely in the steps of Mavis Batey, whose Oxford Gardens has been the vade mecum for over 30 years, Tim Richardson considers the past as well the current state of the gardens belonging to one of the world’s oldest and most eminent universities. Although the Botanic Garden and the University Parks are part of the university itself, the gardens in this book are mostly attached to individual colleges, each with its own history and character.

Oxford’s buildings offer gardeners a variety of backgrounds, from old to modern, and of spaces, from tiny courtyards to a massive deer park. One college, Worcester, has its own substantial lake while many enjoy riverside settings.

Richardson, himself an Oxford alumnus, appreciates not only the beauty of what he is looking at but the expertise that lies behind it, and he includes a list of the current head gardeners of each place, whose skill makes that beauty possible.

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