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7 August 2015

Richard Mabey: Exploring the theatrical space of the garden

Mark Laird's A Natural History of English Gardening reveals gardens as arenas of debate between the natural and the domesticated.

By Richard Mabey

A Natural History of English Gardening
Mark Laird
Yale University Press, 440pp, £45

John Evelyn, the polymathic 17th-century journalist, royalist tractarian and one of the fulcrums of Mark Laird’s majestic book, kept a large garden at Sayes Court on the Thames at Deptford, which included enclosures of captured nightingales, a hygroscope made out of water-sensitive wild-oat seeds, and an embodied belief that what had gone wrong in Eden could be put right in the modern orchard. “It is the common Terme and the pit from whence we were dug,” he wrote. “We all came out of this parsly bed.” This year at Hampton Court, there were show gardens celebrating found stones and the redemptive power of weeds, and a faultless mock-up of the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party.

Gardens have always been places of ambivalent sensibilities, arenas of debate between the natural and the domesticated. Laird has set himself the task of exploring the many cultural entanglements of these theatrical spaces, and his enthralling book is like a cabinet of curiosities, full of weird and surprising niches devoted to paper flower images, conservatory plumbing, the virtues of worms, coffee-house networks, diabolical frosts, Pennsylvanian magnolias and an extraordinary cast of talented and wealthy socialites (working-class ­gardeners aren’t really part of his story). It is dominated by two forces of nature – weather and women, both severely neglected drivers in the history of horticulture. Laird doesn’t peddle the stereotype that women are more sensitively in tune with plants by virtue of their femininity; rather that the glasshouse ceiling, so to speak, was higher in the arts of the garden than it was in, say, engineering.

Evelyn was at the cusp of old and new sensibilities. Horticulturally, he is best known for his book Sylva, or a Discourse of Forest-Trees (commissioned by the Royal Society during the 17th-century naval oak-timber panic), which pretty much invented the practice of creating woods as monocultural plantations – a curse with which we are still afflicted. This, and the ground plan of his garden as a re-creation of Eden, were projects rooted in the old order, in which human beings were obliged to have “domin­ion” over nature. But the other Evelyn, the intellectually curious, forward-looking innovator, published a scheme (Fumifugium) for countering London’s chronic air pollution by the mass growing of roses and shrubs, which – almost – predicted Joseph Priestley’s discoveries about plant transpiration and photosynthesis a century later.

Evelyn appreciated the duality of nature’s status from an Adamic viewpoint. The caterpillars (“cursed Devourers”) that ate his currants, hatched into the butterflies “whose colours mock the skill of the painter to imitate” and which he tried to enclose as mobile ornaments along his garden walks. But they did not mock the skill of the extraordinary Dutch pioneer Maria Sibylla Merian. Enthralled all her life by the idea of metamorphosis, Merian hatched from her own theological cocoon at the end of the 17th century and made a private expedition to Suriname to, quite non-judgementally, study and paint the insects of the tropics. Her celebrated, Bosch-like portrait of the food web on a guava tree – bird-eating spiders, spider-eating ants – is the first depiction of an ecological network.

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The painstaking creation of a complex garden at Beaufort House in Chelsea by Mary Somerset, Duchess of Beaufort, was done in symbiosis with the painting of florilegia by artists such as Alexander Marshal, but the flower pictures made for her by Everhard Kickius are something else. Defying every painterly and botanical convention, “Kick” pictured flowers in compelling visual partnerships, right down to their dissected roots in the soil. They seemed to obey a taxonomy not of nature, but of the imagination, and it is not surprising that the duchess found in them and her plantings a new sensibility: solace in her depressions (then called “mopishness”). Lady Luxborough, of similar sympathies, championed her natural, wildflower-decked coppices over the gloomy and formal “clumps” of Capability Brown. Thomas Robins painted topographical portraits of Benjamin Hyett’s Painswick estate, which, with their borders of naturalistic birds and shells, could be ­covers from 1930s Batsford travel guides. With its astounding and revelatory artwork, this book could with accuracy be called The Art of English Gardening. But, of course, painting a plant is the first act of horticultural enclosure, the “capturing” of a live organism as a prelude to acculturation.

The 18th-century parson Gilbert White, who is Laird’s muse and shadowy companion throughout this book, was no sketcher, but his writings are electrifyingly visual. His accounts of the “black spring” of 1771, caused by coal-smoke pollution, and the terrible winter of 1776 are among the great documentary writings of the 18th century. But he logged them scientifically as well, in his daily weather journals, which contributed to the understanding of the relation between climate and plant growth. Laird handles White with great sensitivity, and understands that his real contribution to 18th-century culture is as a writer, the man who through his voice, empathy and “minute observations” helped to lift natural creation from a mere human utility to a world of individuals with their own hopes, fears, sufferings and joys.

My one reservation is that Laird does not explore more of the strictly scientific contributions of naturalists and gardeners. In his chosen period, Philip Miller, later head gardener of the Chelsea Physic garden, made the first clear notes in 1721 on the pollination of flowers by insects, with incalculable consequences for horticulture. Forty years on, Peter Collinson and Arthur Dobbs introduced from Carolina a new “catchfly sensitive” to the English conservatory. It was the carnivorous Venus flytrap, whose behaviour challenged the ancient hierarchy of the Great Chain of Being, and led a century later to the discovery of how bioelectricity governed the movements of plants.

But this is a quibble. Laird’s mammoth book is magnificent in its own terms, written with wry elegance and a warm heart, its  scholarship never overwhelming the telling detail. And perhaps he is right to have sidestepped the science, for it was the increasing specialisation of botany during the 19th century that finally severed it from gardening, and from all the excited curiosity and ambivalent poignancy (imagine putting sun-hats on flowers in the heat!) that he celebrates so compellingly.

“The Cabaret of Plants” by Richard Mabey will be published by Profile Books in October

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