Coffee-table books: Colourful, grand and with gloomth galore

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The Independent Culture

In 1555, the Italian nobleman, lover, soldier and scholar Vicino Orsini retired to his country estate at Bomarzo in Lazio. Sickened with the world of the court, he sought solace in his boschetto, no "little wood" but a sculpture garden offering thrills, surprises, intellectual delights and philosophical consolation. Without a grounding in the works of Ficino, Dante, Petrarch and Tasso and a thorough understanding of Renaissance emblems, it's impossible now to unpick the multiple meanings of his sacro bosco (sacred wood). Jessie Sheeler's The Garden at Bomarzo: A Renaissance riddle (Frances Lincoln 25) guides the reader step-by-step round what remains of Vicino's grand plan, with its stony orcs, dragons and sirens, its winged horses, elephants and tortoises, its temples, dried up fountains and puzzling inscriptions. Sheeler's previous book unravelled the ideas behind Little Sparta, Ian Hamilton Finlay's Scottish garden, but Bomarzo is much more complex, and in its current ruinous state difficult to interpret. Mark Edward Smith's stunning photographs make this the pick of the coffee-table books this Christmas.

Horace Walpole was the creator of another jeu d'esprit, Strawberry Hill in Twickenham. In 1747, Walpole rented and later bought the delightfully named Chopp'd Straw Hall, got the decorating bug, started crenellating and pioneered the architectural and literary fashion for all things Gothic. So wild was public enthusiasm that he permitted his housekeeper to take round small parties of visitors. Strawberry Hill: Horace Walpole's Gothic Castle by Anna Chalcraft and Judith Viscardi (Frances Lincoln 25) is less sumptuous than Sheeler's book, with a dearth of photographs (Strawberry Hill is in poor repair and currently closed for renovation). Instead, the story is told through contemporary memorabilia, showing it in its heyday (as well as inventing the stately home tour and guidebook, Walpole even pioneered the gift-shop). Without the glossiness, this is a more austere read than The Garden at Bomarzo, but the appealing character of its creator shines through. "If any Person does not make use of the Ticket, Mr. Walpole hopes he shall have Notice; otherwise he is prevented from obliging others on that Day, and thence is put to great Inconvenience."

Walpole invented the word gloomth to express a thrillingly grim Gothic ambience: there's gloomth galore in Simon Marsden's Memento Mori: Churches and churchyards of England (English Heritage 25). Marsden's camera is drawn to wisps of fog, lichen-covered angels, eroded stone heads with cobwebbed eye-sockets and creepy crypts. The caption information is generally sparse, but he throws in some effective mini ghost stories and folk tales, like that of the mermaid who came to church in Zennor, or the errant soul of a squire once kept in a bottle in a Shropshire church .

Those famous churchyard inhabitants, yews, feature in Archie Miles's Hidden Trees of Britain (Ebury 25) which, unlike the rest of these books is (just about) compact enough to act as a field guide. The age of these venerable trees is, he says, generally accepted as 1,800 to 2,000 years old, but to take that as proof that the sites were sacred in pre-Christian times is questionable. The book is a comprehensive guide ranging from yew circles in Wales to the rare West Country "Plymouth Pear", deep, silent oak forests, orchards, copses or blast-contorted seaside tamarisks. Miles's photographs are generally colourful and sunlit, but he's not immune to feelings of awe, mystery and gloomth when combing through remote, ancient woodland. It doesn't necessarily take the hand of man to create a sacro bosco.