For a garden to win a prize at Chelsea or other major shows, it has to conform to current horticultural correctness. In the last few years that has meant incorporating elements of unimproved nature - long grass, wild flowers, overgrown ruins of outbuildings - to encourage birds, butterflies, insects and other forms of wildlife, as penance for the devastation man is said to have wrought on the environment. Thankfully, there is none of that sanctimonious nonsense in the two gardens celebrated by their creators in these handsome books. Rather than imitate nature, they impose on it stylised, artful concepts born of their contrasting obsessions. As Charles Jencks notes, "Garden art is a genre close to autobiography."
Jencks is an architectural writer and designer with an enthusiasm for large ideas and a circle of friends prominent in philosophy, mathematics and the life sciences. After he married Maggie Keswick, an expert on Chinese gardens, they moved into her mother's house at Portrack, in the Scottish lowlands, and decided to create there a garden themed on the very origin of life. "There are obvious parallels between gardening and creating a cosmos," he explains to doubters.
Thus when the couple dug out a lake for the children to swim in, they sculpted the resulting mound of earth as a double helix - the basic form of DNA - and called it the Snail Mound. The greenhouse roof is decorated with 12 equations that throw light on the laws of the universe. And the garden's most prominent feature is the Universe Cascade, symbolically tracing the story of life over 15 billion years. Jencks was never able to convince his mother-in-law, Clare, to endorse his vision. "To me a garden is flowers, plants, shrubs and trees," she told him crisply.
This lack of wholehearted enthusiasm for Portrack is apparently shared by Sir Roy Strong, who gives it a glancing mention in his book about the making of his own garden at The Laskett in Herefordshire. While he enthuses over other garden-makers who have inspired him - Rosemary Verey, Cecil Beaton, Ian Hamilton Finlay - he records his visit to the Jencks's without comment.
Yet The Laskett and Portrack share common attributes. Both are more concerned with the larger picture, the structural elements - sculpture, paths and statuary - than details of planting. Sir Roy, indeed, declares that "flowers are a sign of failure in a garden", and celebrates his "release from the Eighties revival of the world of Jekyll and Lutyens" - although later he admits that he is finally getting the hang of planting a mixed border.
He does not go so far as Jencks in claiming to create a cosmos, yet in his romantic way he is just as obsessive. With his wife Julia Trevelyan Oman, the theatre designer, he harks back to the formal gardens of the 19th century and Elizabethan England, with their regular parterres and ornaments. His purpose was to recreate "a timeless England" whose roots lay in the soil of the countryside as opposed to "the squalor, grime and commercialism of the industrial city".
His book describes how he and Julia did it and the friends who helped them, chiefly with gifts from their own gardens. It is a huge, never-ending project, partly because of Sir Roy's restless urge to bring in ever more statuary. And it has had its setbacks - deadly frosts, the dreadful plague that felled his beloved box, a gardener who ruined a carefully nurtured vista by injudicious pruning .
Overcoming all that, the couple have created a series of spaces of contrasting character, each named in honour of significant events, people, cats and places in their lives: Covent Garden, the Beaton Steps. The lesson that Sir Roy wants us to draw is that a great garden is "not only an arrangement of plants and artifacts", but also "a tissue of allusions and ideas". Both these gardens testify to that, even if neither would win a top prize at Chelsea.
Michael Leapman's 'Inigo' is published by ReviewReuse content