Book review: 100 Inspirational Gardens

Dream Gardens: 100 Inspirational Gardens (Tania Compton and Andrew Lawson )

My colleague, Roddy Llewellyn, was recently asked by the impertinent editor of a German lifestyle magazine whether the English led the world in gardening because they wanted to escape their boring sex lives. Needless to say, he volleyed back a witty and elegant reply, but it is true that, although the British endure an unromantic reputation, our gardens are envied across the world.

Although this sumptuous book sets an international agenda, with examples from the USA, Australasia and mainland Europe, 75% of the gardens featured are in England understandably, as both the author and photographer are based here. Yet, their choice also reflects the variety and creativity to be found even before you venture beyond these shores.

Tania Compton’s introduction sets the scene: ‘Most creative endeavours are born of a desire to turn a dream into reality. In gardening, the dream that may spur the transformation of a featureless site into a garden never ends.’ The reason, of course, is that once it has been ‘made’, a garden cannot do otherwise than continue its cycle of growth, change, decay and rebirth. In this book we see a series of perfect moments, when the transformation into accomplished dream appears to have been completed.

Only a short chunk of text introduces each garden. We find well-trodden paths (Great Dixter, Iford Manor, West Green House, Hadspen) with more private omains Crockmore House, Guanock House, Bury Court and rigorously-designed, city pocket handkerchiefs. It cannot have been easy to sift only five score of gardens from around the world, but the selection herephotographed by that master of light and composition, Andrew Lawson is successful and inspiring, and intelligently organised into a progression through the seasons.

Hoar frost transforms the late David Hicks’ austere creation at The Grove into a place of bewitching atmosphere. Miscanthus grasses dominate the autumn scenes, although fall colour and autumn bulbs must be out of fashion, and kitchen gardens are almost entirely absent. (Do people not dream of food?)

Presently, publishers prefer to show gardens as uninhabited places unsullied by mere mortals, even gardeners at work; I wonder if the time will return when people are welcomed back into garden photographs, as was so atmospherically accomplished by Country Life’s own photographer, Charles Latham, a century ago. A book editor once told me that they never show people because they date so quickly. She was probably right, but then so do planting fashions, and one of the strengths of this elegant book is its window on the ‘shabby chic’ informal gardening trends which dominate the early-21st-century plot.