This classic book of garden literature by Russell Page should be on every gardener’s bedside table.
I re-read it every few years and always enjoy it. Russell Page was a garden designer and landscape artist and he was probably the most influential of his generation. He designed gardens for all the great and the good in his time.( Well, not necessarily the good, he designed one for those well- known Nazi sympathisers, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor). He was heavily influenced by the formality of Eastern and French gardens. He insisted on restraint in planting. He is still so highly regarded that his style of gardening has become the paradigm for good taste. I blame him for the vogue for box hedging and geometric garden designs. He was very aware of his influence and importance and although I love this book, I dislike the way he patronises us and instructs us as to what is tasteful and what not. It is all very well repeating Pope’ s dictum about consulting the genius of the place and designing a garden that is in keeping with the house, but his commissions were for grand places, not for the 1930 s semi.
For instance, to be in keeping with a Victorian house you would have to give your garden over to bedding out which only municipal parks adopt these days. Here is an example of carpet bedding in the Abbey gardens at Bury St Edmunds. What private gardener could or would want to attempt this?
And what about my higgledy piggledy house built in 1500? How should my garden look to be in harmony with an early sixteenth century house that would have belonged to a yeoman farmer? I suppose I should have chickens and a pig sty and a midden. My front garden should be full of cabbages and herbs of course. Everyone grew herbs, or simples as they were called, for self- medication. I grow culinary herbs but I am not interested in growing herbs to heal the dropsy. I recently bought a Devil’s Bit Scabious because it is beautiful and bees love it. I didn’t buy it because Gerard tells me that ‘Divel’s Bit ‘clenseth away slimie flegme that sticketh in the jaws‘. If I am unfortunate enough to find myself with slimie flegme sticking to my jaws I will go to the doctor. And I will never grow horrible Hypericum or ‘Saint James his Wort’ as Gerard calls it. Even if a ‘decoction of it gargarised‘ is a remedy against swellings and ‘impostumations‘ of the throat.
A friend of mine has a little sixteenth century cottage and she is determined that her garden will be authentic. She only grows sixteenth century plants, preferably ones mentioned by Shakespeare. In her front garden she has a pretty knot garden and she is very proud of that. In fact, it is entirely inappropriate for the garden of a small cottage. A knot garden was the fashion accessory for the rich. Here is one looking just right in the grounds of the Tudor Helmingham Hall.
I really think it is an affectation to grow only the plants that were available in the sixteenth century. We are so lucky to live in an age when we can grow plants from all round the world and we no longer need to use our gardens to scratch out an existence. Our gardens have a completely different purpose. I have had friendly disagreements with a friend about having a garden in keeping with the period of the house. She thinks that a cottage garden is appropriate for a house like mine. And although my front garden is what you might call a cottage garden, I don’ t think this is authentic for a sixteenth century house and I am planning on a complete makeover next year.
The idea of a picturesque cottage garden is a Victorian and early twentieth century construct. It represents an imaginary past seen through the eyes of artists such as Alfred Parsons, Helen Allingham and Earnest Arthur Rowe.
I once read a gardening book and I cannot remember who wrote it, where the author objected to Eucalyptus trees in an English garden. He said they are as inappropriate as an ostrich on a grouse moor. And I wondered why pick on Eucalyptus trees? We grow plants from all over the world and our gardens are enriched by them.
So whenever I read Russell Page, I find myself picking an argument with him. I can’t have and do not want a garden that harmonises with my house. And neither do I want it organised on a geometric grid pattern like a Persian carpet. And I don’t want box hedges, I loathe the things. I want my garden to take you on a roundabout path that meanders here and there and never in a straight line. I don’t want long vistas; I want a surprise round every corner. I don’ t want blocks of colour or a restricted palette of plants that are repeated. I don’t want restraint. I want a rich tapestry of horticultural delights. And I don’t want to be sneered at and told that I am a plant collector and not an artist and have no aesthetic sense. I wrote a post about the thorny problem of taste and another one to foster a debate about whether the garden is an art form, both of which provoked much comment. I think most of us object to the implication that our beloved gardens are not aesthetically pleasing. I know Page trained at the Slade under the great Tonks and without doubt he designed beautiful gardens. But the implication that he is the arbiter of good taste in the garden and that any garden that doesn’t measure up to his standards is not artistic, is annoying.
I wouldn’ t want a painting by Mark Rothko or even Mondrian, even if I could afford them. Give me a Breughal scene or a Bosschaert flower painting any time, or even a painting by poor, mad Richard Dadd. Paintings that you can gaze at for hours and get lost in the detail. And it’ s the same with gardens; I don’ t want broad strokes or geometrical regularity. I want intricacy, a tapestry of beautiful flowers. I believe we should follow our own eyes and create a garden that pleases us without worrying whether it matches Page’ s criteria. I have to point out that Page didn’ t even have his own garden. In my book, you can’ t call yourself a gardener if you don’t garden, anymore than you can be an artist if you don’t paint, or a writer if you don’ t write.
I set out to do a book review and end up doing an iconoclastic rant. I looked on line to see whether amongst all the reverential descriptions of this book anyone felt like me. I found one written by Beth of GardenFancy, a blog I now follow, but didn’ t know about back in 2014, when she wrote this book review. Beth seems to agree with me on many points, but instead of a rant she gives an excellent and measured review. So if you want to know more about the book, here is where you can find the information. If you read this Beth, please give us a link.
Last week I went to see an amazing garden, East Ruston in North Norfolk. It has been criticised in some quarters by the taste police, for being too flamboyant, a mishmash of styles and not restrained enough. I love it and will write about it in my next post.
In the meantime, after all I have said; if you haven’t already, do read The Education of a Gardener. It is elegantly written and full of information. Even if like me, you don’ t agree with all he says, you have to read it to know what you are disagreeing with. And after all, it is a great book.