Book Reviews

From summer 2017, book reviews will be published here and in the newsletter, leaving more space in the magazine for features.


A Rum Affair: A True Story of Botanical Fraud by Karl Sabbagh; reviewed by Philip Stephen

Birlinn. 260 pages. £9.99. ISBN 978-1-78027-386-0.

John Raven (d. 1980) was a distinguished Cambridge classicist and Senior Tutor at King’s. He was also a formidable amateur botanist (see HGR 9 for a review of his book on Plant Lore in Ancient Greece), an eccentric (though courteous) polemicist and, as it turns out, also an amateur sleuth. Now here is a book where Raven is the principal character. In 1941 John Heslop Harrison, Professor of Botany at Newcastle University and a major figure in British botany, published a paper announcing
astounding discoveries in the Isle of Rum (then spelled Rhum) in the Hebrides.

Sedges and grasses growing nowhere else in the British Isles (or only in the far south of England) had been found by him on the island, leading to the conclusion that they had survived the last Glaciation, an event then supposed by scientists to have wiped out all plant life under the ice-cap.In the late 1940s, Raven became suspicious of this ‘discovery’ and carried out his own investigations on Rum, coming to the conclusion that this was an enormous fraud and that Harrison had planted the ‘discoveries’ himself.The story of Raven’s uncovering of the fraud, and the author’s own unearthing of Raven’s unpublished report on it, is told, very entertainingly, by Karl Sabbagh in this well-illustrated and great value paperback.

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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