Christmas Special: Coffee table books reviewed

Can an entire country be photogenic? By Suzi Frey
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The Independent Culture

One of the most annoying things about the National Trust is its policy of winter closure; come October, I always feel like asking for a one-quarter rebate on the membership fee. (And don't get me started on the byzantine every-other-Tuesday-afternoon-in-months-without-an-R-in-them opening times.) If you have relatives who are similarly afflicted, Stephen Lacey's Gardens of the National Trust (NT £30) will get them through this lean period. It's perfect for planning your spring outings; wherever you live or stay in England, there will be a garden worth visiting nearby. Arranged alphabetically, each one is briefly but enticingly described, with notes on soil, altitude and rainfall for the truly green-fingered. The colour repro is a bit lurid, and as a whole the book is more functional than luxurious, but it's certainly excellent value for money.

Since the last such guide came out, 10 years ago, there have been a few changes at the Trust. It has gained several properties in the interim, Tyntesfield in Somerset and The Red House in Bexleyheath among them. The latter gets its own volume, William Morris & Red House (NT £25), by Jan Marsh, who has written extensively about the Pre-Raphaelite circle and its women. At only £5 less, it is much less substantial than Gardens of the National Trust, but anyone who has fallen in love with Morris's poem in red brick to his beautiful, faithless Janey will love this book. When Morris went to live there, it was still quite rural. Now the suburban sprawl has engulfed it, but the house is still magical, with much evidence of Morris's life there still in situ, and a charming garden which gets its own entry in Lacey's book.

English Heritage's Christmas offering is Julius Bryant's The English Grand Tour (EH £19.99). Subtitled "Artists and Admirers of England's Historic Sites", it's not an art-historical treatise at all, but a handbook showing English Heritage properties (Stonehenge, abbeys and castles galore) through the eyes of Turner, Constable, Thomas Girtin, John Piper and other British artists. There is also a concise but informative mini-essay about each site. The nice thing about English Heritage properties is that they tend not to be coated in aspic or over-restored. As this book amply demonstrates, they have always inspired artists and still kindle the imagination today.

That perfect little English seaside town Southwold has drawn its share of artists, too, though judging from Making Waves: Artists in Southwold by Ian Collins (Black Dog £30), they mostly weren't in the front rank. Unfortunately, Lucian Freud, whose family had connections in the area (and whose novelist daughter Esther still lives in nearby Walberswick), actively dislikes the place. Apparently he's put off by "all the amateur lady artists wearing amber necklaces". But Stanley Spencer found inspiration there, and the black-clad Charles Rennie Mackintosh was taken for a spy as he wandered round the marshes sketching flowers (he was rumoured to have been seen signalling out to sea from his cottage). Apart from a few important figures such as these, the art inspired by the town has been mostly postcard-pretty, but Collins's entertaining text is filled with fascinating stories and characters.

Still in Suffolk, David Stanford's Suffolk Churches (Frances Lincoln £14.99) is surprisingly fascinating, mainly because the buildings themselves are so peculiar. Battlemented, outsize or truncated towers, thatched roofs, half-timbered naves, isolated marshland settings: these are refreshingly eccentric churches. There's an entry for the imposing St Edmund's in Southwold, with its majestic flintwork tower, impressive hammerbeam roof and mighty nave. The photographs are excellent, but perhaps Stanford's prose could be improved. Inside St Edmund's, apparently, "Magical 15th-century misericords and choir stalls display English woodcarving at it's finest." Ouch.

John Martin Robinson's The Regency Country House (Aurum £40), a overwhelmingly thorough survey over the subject and period, is divided into three sections, "The Palaces", "The Nobleman's House" and "The Gentleman's House". The photographs have been taken from the archives of Country Life, and all the great names are here: Repton, Soane, Henry Holland and John Nash, along with less familiar but significant contemporaries. We're back in aspic territory with these magnificent, yet daunting interiors, but this is also a social history, and yet again, a book to inspire spring visits.

Proving that lavish personal spending has never gone out of style, The New Garden Paradise: Great Private Gardens of the World by Dominique Browning (Norton £30) is a doorstopping survey of the works of key modern garden designers. Britain's own Dan Pearson demonstrates his flair for natural planting in an inspirational and rather theatrical garden on the South Downs (I suspect the owner has something to do with Glyndebourne), and elsewhere Sarah and Monty Don feature with a vibrant cottage garden. Further afield, I loved the stunning, untamed harshness of William Peters' Idaho garden, which merges barely perceptibly with the stony terrain, and the flamboyant, Hollywood Hills extravaganza belonging to Tim Curry (yes, old Frank N Furter himself). This is packed with ideas; and gardeners driven indoors by the winter weather can exercise those digging arms just by lifting it.

A couple of the New Garden Paradise gardens look hideous to me, but then I'm old school. In Versailles: A Garden in Four Seasons (Abrams £40, with slipcase), you'll get no horticultural information, no explicatory material at all, in fact: just Jacques Dubois's haunting photographs of all that supremely controlled, neoclassical splendour. Mostly the gardens are deserted, except for the statues; this is Versailles as no visitor is lucky enough to see it. The elements are water, stone, clipped box and changing light. There are some witty touches (a page juxtaposing three elegant stone bottoms, for example), but the mood is often melancholy, especially as the tones darken and harden with the onset of winter. Grave cherubs wear caps of snow; blank eyes rest impassively on the viewer; marble breasts are cankered by time; distorted mouths gape after fountains have been turned off. This is as close as photography gets to poetry.

Similarly expressive and wordless, though otherwise in complete contrast, is Olivier Föllmi's India (Abrams £29.95). Holy men, children, dancers, martial artists, beggars, bathers, matrons, pilgrims: all are magnetic, intense, filled with emotion. It could be said that Föllmi shuns the squalor and the filth, but distress is not too far underneath his bright surfaces: the streaks in an enchanting little girl's hair turn out to be signs of malnutrition; the limbs of a serene elderly woman bathing in the Ganges are painfully thin; many subjects look as though all they possess in the world is on their backs. Eight months in the making, the book is a compendium of astonishing images from all over the subcontinent.

To buy any of the books featured with free p&p, call Independent Books Direct on 08700 798 897 and quote IBD12/05. 10% discount on all orders over £20