Garden Mania, by Philip de Bay and James Bolton

Garden Mania cvr1

Garden Mania: The Ardent Gardener’s Compendium of Design and Decoration.

A chunky 400-page collection of out of copyright pictures relating to gardens, printed on good quality paper, this is a delight for the armchair gardener.  Drawn mainly from English, French, Dutch, German, Austrian and Italian sources, it is divided into ‘shaping nature: a paradise on earth’ (i.e. garden design); ‘building the garden: temples of delight’; ‘the garden divided: gateways and enclosures’; ‘furnishing the garden: ornament in many materials’; ‘a place of pleasure: amusements and entertainments’; ‘water: the most vital element’; and ‘the garden at work: providing and protecting’.  Each section has a brief impressionistic introduction and Monty Don contributed a preface.  However, the proportion of words to pictures is very small, and the book’s pleasure is in gazing at the pictures.  The range is enormous, with engravings and paintings that show just how flexible the concept of a garden is, although the emphasis is definitely on showing the grand ones, whether formal or informal.

 While some of the gardens are exquisite, others appear ugly and over-fussy to the modern eye, indicating how aesthetics evolve.  Many of the illustrations are taken from pattern-books that designers showed their wealthy clients, and it would have been useful to have been given an idea which of the gardens and their buildings were actually constructed in the form shown; those that were adapted to make them cheaper and easier to construct, even whether the images were aspirational, the designer simply showing off (in the same way that one would be surprised to find some of the wilder fashions displayed on the catwalk worn in the street), or just too ambitious to find a patron willing to finance them.  There must be as much fantasy as documentation in this collection.

The extravagance of some of the more ostentatious gardens is quite breath-taking, and it is even worse to learn that quite often features were never intended to be permanent, but would be supplanted by something else in line with changing fashion.  To see huge summer houses that were better appointed than many labourers’ cottages is to witness inequality at its most naked.  Gardens with patronisingly ‘rustic’ features rubbed it in even more.  The French seem to have been particularly profligate: the introduction to the section on amusements and entertainments tells us that ‘The garden theatre of the Sun King, as a place of celebration and frivolity, has never been surpassed.’  The reader is supposed to admire the spectacle, but instead may express little surprise that the Ancien Régime fell into disrepute, when by contrast ordinary people led such hard lives.

While Garden Mania is an enjoyable book to flip through, the relatively small format does the plates a disservice.  Many are contained on two pages, and as the book is so thick, the pictures cannot be seen flat without breaking the spine.  A larger format, with illustrations on a single page, would have been preferable.  The captions are brief, and while the focus may be on the pictures, at times it would have been helpful had the text gone into a little more detail.  There is also a narrow range of countries covered, presumably a result of what was readily available, and although chinoiserie is occasionally mentioned, there is nothing about the oriental approach to the garden, which seems a significant omission.  Authorship of the book is credited to Philip de Bay and James Bolton but Sara Waterson contributed ‘Painstaking research of material and behind-the-scenes work … without her captions, bibliography and glossary the book would have been much less complete.’  Her efforts are definitely ‘deserving of very special thanks’ – but why was her name not on the cover?

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