Best websites for garden history
Recently in these pages, I reported the closure of Britain's only two MA courses in garden history at Bristol and London (Birkbeck) universities. The latest news is that Cambridge University's continuing-education department is planning a new MA incorporating garden history, and Birkbeck proposes to subsume the topic into a general history of design course. In the meantime, it seems shameful that none of our universities is able to offer students the opportunity to study at a high level the subject that Pevsner dubbed Britain's greatest contribution to the visual arts.
On the other hand, my own little online course, English Garden History, 1650 to the Present Day, commissioned by Oxford University's Department for Continuing Education, suddenly takes on a new significance (it goes live in October). My brief for the course-which is not an MA but a 10-week ‘module' for first-year undergraduates and interested others was that it should cater not only for British students, but for those studying from afar, too.
My task has been to find ways of communicating, by means of online resources, the basics of English garden history to people living in China, India, Japan or Africa, who may never even come to England. I've been amazed to find what's out there, online, so here are a few websites you may like to try.
Perhaps the greatest hidden resource on the internet is the availability of entire classic books as browsable downloads. One or two American universities have been particularly good at providing them, and most of Gertrude Jekyll's books are available in this way. You can access, for example, the early Some English Gardens (1904), with watercolours by Samuel Elgood (www.biodiversitylibrary.org/bibliography/21248), which includes a section on Philip Webb's Great Tangley Manor-an important early influence on Lutyens-and that classic of Country Life publications, 1912's Gardens for Small Country Houses (www.biodiversitylibrary.org/bibliography/31013).
New York's Morgan Library and Museum website (www.themorgan.org) contains excellent reproductions of two of Humphry Repton's Red Books-for Ferney Hall and Hatchlands-which can be scrutinised closely. And YouTube harbours Sir Michael Hordern's excellent 1991 programme about Repton and his work (www.youtube.com/watch?v=JIz2sPFyM-s).
One would expect a garden as celebrated as Stowe to be well served online. There is indeed an excellent virtual tour available (although it's not the National Trust's), featuring a map with clickable arrows revealing different views from the same spot (http://faculty.bsc.edu/jtatter/areatour.html). It's also possible to look at close-ups of every statue bust in the Temple of British Worthies.
Of other online resources worth seeking out, I would especially recommend the British Library's brilliant virtual exhibition devoted to a book of images of late-17th-century Dutch gardens, which had such an influence on British garden style (www.bl.uk/onlinegallery/virtualbooks/viewall/index.html). This has an audio commentary, and offers the most wonderful close-up detail.
One last rare treat is the British Library's excellent zoomable plan of Sayes Court, John Evelyn's house and garden on the banks of the Thames at Deptford, east London (www.bl.uk/onlinegallery/onlineex/deptford/p/008add00078628au00000000.html). This is complemented
by a worthwhile blog, clearly a labour of love, which has further absorbing detail and text (http://londonslostgarden.wordpress.com/author/londonslostgarden). And there is always the download of Evelyn's great tract Sylva (1664), dedicated to the trees of Britain, which enumerates them species by species (www.biodiversitylibrary.org/bibliography/23777).
All this online activity may not be quite as good as being able to visit the gardens themselves, but it's an acceptable consolation prize, perhaps, if one is abroad or the weather is particularly ugly.
See Country Life's early garden photographs at www.countrylifeimages.co.uk