The Garden at Buckingham Palace: An Illustrated History

Jane Brown is a distinguished writer on gardens and gardening, and now she has given us what will undoubtedly be the standard work on the garden of Buckingham Palace. In her task she is aided by the superb photographs of Christopher Simon Sykes and a lavish use of historical material. The book is a delight?well-researched, well-written, well-designed and printed. And yet . . .

Why do I hesitate, loyal monarchist though I am? What is striking about the Buckingham Palace garden is that no one has ever been seriously interested in it. The best garden that it ever had was the formal one designed by the great Henry Wise for the Duke of Buckingham at the opening of the 18th century, before it be-came royal property in 1763. Since then, no monarch has had either the commitment or the cash to create a garden of any real importance. In sharp contrast to the other royal palaces, no major designer has ever worked there.

Royal horticultural commitments, if they had any, were always elsewhere: Queen Char-lotte’s at Frogmore; George IV’s at Brighton; Victoria’s at Osborne; Queen Alexandra’s at Sandringham; the late Queen Mother’s at Royal Lodge, Birkhall and Mey. It is no use varnishing over the fact that several of our sovereigns had no interest in horticulture at all. Why should they have? It is untrue to write that ‘Queen Mary loved gardens’.

There is no evidence for this; and she and George V were responsible for demolishing the one important feature of the Buckingham Palace grounds: the pavilion, which was erected under the aegis of Prince Albert and filled with pictures by the leading painters of the day. That was vandalism.

Interest in the garden stems from a solitary fact: that until recently you couldn’t get in it without an invitation. The fact that no great designer ever worked there has in the long run, however, worked in its favour, for here is the teatro verzura of the monarchy?the Queen’s largest drawing room. It has come into its own only during the last century for, when full democracy came, here was a space to entertain everyman: a setting for garden parties and grander occasions, such as the Golden Jubilee events. Useful, too, as a helicopter landing pad.

I grant that there are some fine specimen trees in the garden, that it is a green lung for London and that wildlife goes on there like blazes, but it has never nor will it ever rank as a great garden. It is a beautifully maintained open space fulfilling its task to perfection, but it falls down on virtually every cri-teria by which you would judge a great garden: originality, surprise, vista, architecture, sta-tuary, planting. I could go on. That is why I congratulate Jane Brown for achieving what can only be described as a horticultural conjuring trick.

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