Our inhuman horticulture

<i>The Artist and the Garden </i>by Roy Strong (Yale University Press, &pound;29.95, 288pp)
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The Independent Culture

There was a time, Sir Roy Strong reminds us, when it was quite normal to talk about gardening in terms of painting. In the 18th century, a discussion about the great landscape painters could move without a change of gear into a debate on the best proponents of garden design. Then they were just two aspects of the same aesthetic. Now they are not, which is why we need his remarkable new book.

There was a time, Sir Roy Strong reminds us, when it was quite normal to talk about gardening in terms of painting. In the 18th century, a discussion about the great landscape painters could move without a change of gear into a debate on the best proponents of garden design. Then they were just two aspects of the same aesthetic. Now they are not, which is why we need his remarkable new book.

His story starts in 1540 and stops in the early 19th century, which is when plants began to flood into England at a dizzy rate. The art of gardening, and the philosophy that underpinned it, gave way to craftsmanship. Plants ruled and 19th-century gardeners concentrated on ever more ingenious ways of teaching them how to grow. Gardens have never since regained their place alongside art on the Olympic pedestal.

This book is a natural twin to John Harris's work on The Artist and the Country House, published 20 years ago. Interest in the history of gardens has blossomed since then and Roy Strong, a historian and a passionate gardener himself, is an inspired and sure-footed guide through 300 years of change in recording the ways that gardens were made.

His story follows the rise of the garden as a secular status symbol, a process that began in medieval times and reached its apotheosis at Louis XIV's swanky, show-off party piece, Versailles. Roy Strong explores the inter-relationship of the artist and the garden through five themes, beginning with gardens in portraits. Tantalising glimpses of the sitter's enclosed world are given to us in paintings such as Rowland Lockey's portrait of Thomas More and his family, completed in 1594. Gardens then were geometry lessons, formal, symmetrical, divided into compartments with evergreens and securely walled round against the wider world beyond.

Gradually, though, the garden was separated from its owner and his house and was recorded for its own sake. This was when Leonard Knyff and Jan Kip reigned, producing between them extraordinary bird's-eye views of grand gardens such as the Duchess of Beaufort's, and Lord Burlington's place at Chiswick.

Theirs are the most famous names in the explosion of mapping and recording gardens between 1670 and 1730. But some of the most enchanting images in this heavily illustrated book (350 pictures at least) are by unknown artists.

For charm, few pictures match the work of the anonymous artist who recorded the garden of Llanerch in Denbighshire, soon after it was completed in 1662. The perspective is bizarre - the pond standing on its head, as harbours do in the St Ives scenes of the naive painter, Alfred Wallis. But there is so much rivetting detail: a statue of Neptune in the middle of the pond, smart white picket fencing enclosing an outer yard with a mounting block, two peaked banqueting houses like the brick pavilions at 20th-century Hidcote in Gloucestershire, espalier fruit trees against the brick walls, two grand semicircular flights of steps leading from one terraced level to the next. Two fat white rabbits graze in their own secure coney patch. A man rides up to the gate on a grey horse. Washerwomen carry laundry back to the house from the nearby stream. A dog prances along in front of them.

Compare these lively scenes with the images of gardens we are given now. In the avalanche of garden photographs published in books and magazines every week, you will scarcely ever see a human being. It's partly because of our present obsession with plants, partly because of a shift in perception.

Gardens now are made for their own sake, the photographs seem say. They are not there to be inhabited and enjoyed by the people who made them and care for them. How bare and cold our 20th-century images would seem to Mutton Davies, proud owner of Llanerch in 1662.

Interest in these single, huge, overall garden views led naturally to the production of sets of pictures of the same garden, each taken from a different viewpoint. Painting and gardening came very close then, as the garden itself began to unfold as a series of carefully composed images. The formal tradition collapsed.

No longer was there a contrast between tamed and untamed nature, a fundamental premise of the Renaissance garden. Garden owners of the mid-18th century wanted their gardens to become landscapes, though untamed nature was still carefully tweaked by designers such as William Kent and Capability Brown.

This is a fascinating book, not straight garden history, but something much more subtle. It's about ways of seeing, which may reflect ambition and wishful thinking as much as reality. Roy Strong's scholarship is enviable. Unfortunately misprints, a chapter wrongly numbered and a muddle over caption numbers, suggest his publishers have been less careful.

Anna Pavord's 'The Tulip' is now a Bloomsbury paperback

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