Book Review: The Pursuit of Paradise

Gardening is our vernacular art form – just as the French have cooking, we have horticulture. But being British, we do not make a great deal of noise about it. This diffuse, enjoyable book, subtitled ‘A Social History of Gardens and Gardening’, is intended to redress the balance by celebrating the legacies of nurserymen, professional gardeners and dedicated amateurs instead of the familiar pantheon of great gardens and gardeners. In this it fails, but ‘The Pursuit of Paradise’ is nevertheless an entertaining read that reflects a working life spent thinking about, writing about and – most importantly – going to gardens.

Unlike the only previous attempt at a social history of gardening, Miles Hadfield’s ‘History of Gardening’, this book does not seem to want to get to grips with the realities of life as a gardener. Its value lies in the breathless linkage of unlikely or unfamiliar gardens and personalities, and the author’s personal asides and unsubstantiated theories, such as the idea that the 18th-century pleasure garden was one of the reasons why there was no revolution in England.

Eleven thematic chapters envelop a scatter-gun, personal garden history written in the wistful, determinedly amateur style of most garden writing of this century. The great Victorian rosarian Dean Hole is described as ‘a gardener’s darling’, Francis Bacon is a ‘grand wizard’, and California’s Thomas Church is ‘brilliant’ – twice in one paragraph. In fact, the lack of editorial discipline is more amusing than it is irritating. It is wonderful to know that 1930s nursery catalogues listed miniature trees for Japanese ‘bonkai’ gardens, and the chapters on the military influence on landscape design and scientific innovation are groundbreaking. There is a novel foray into the world of Catholic recusant gardens and their design, although no conclusions are drawn about them, and we come across some extraordinary personalities.

Leonardo da Vinci’s planting advice in the context of water gardens is enlightening: ‘The lights on such leaves as are darkest in colour will most closely resemble the colour of the atmosphere reflected in them.’ The author’s commentary on 20th century garden design is heavily weighted to the Edwardian era. Christopher Tunnard, the leading Modernist proselytiser (who, admittedly, failed) is omitted. The idea that garden design is ‘a new and vibrant profession’ because people are being taught versions of the Arts and Crafts style is contentious. Some would argue that garden design is flourishing precisely because designers are breaking away from the influence of Jekyll and Lutyens, about whom the author has written so exactingly. But this is a good book, and the fact that it is not the one described on the jacket will not much matter to the curious reader.