Books: House and garden

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The best biographies of houses and gardens dwell just as much on the people who fought, loved and died there (a cook-boy was roasted on a spit by one dreadful duke in Hugh Montgomery-Massingberd's Great Houses of Scotland) as the carving of a grand chimney-piece or the karma of a minimalist bedroom. Interior decoration is the most ephemeral of the applied arts, and the most personal. If it survives beyond the lifetime of its creator it is generally through luck, love and money, because it is uneconomical to alter a grand house or because of the possibility of creating a shrine to a revered figure. This year's crop of homages to homes and owners are united by excellent photography, plus in many cases a proper narrative thread - which picture books often lack. However, though their look is all important, as usual their designers are barely credited.

A Legacy of Excellence: the story of Villa I Tatti by William Weaver (photographs by David Finn and David Morowitz, Abrams, pounds 37.95) is a reverential but riveting history, by the man best known as Umberto Eco's translator, of the house and splendid formal gardens created outside Florence by that great showman and art historian of the Renaissance, Bernard Berenson, and his wife Mary. It is also a gripping portrait of a marriage and its contribution to I Tatti: such as Mary's obsessive love for the architect Geoffrey Scott, whom she kept busy with new projects and who, with Cecil Pinsent, was responsible for the layout of the topiary-rich gardens. Once, when Bernard was in Rome, she had a tower built as a "surprise" for him. Since his death in 1959, I Tatti has been lovingly preserved by Harvard University, and is still used for studying the Renaissance, with Berenson's fabulous 50,000-volume library at its centre.

Edith Wharton's first book, Italian Villas and their Gardens in 1904, was a pioneering history of Italian garden architecture. The revisiting of these theatrical gardens in Edith Wharton's Italian Gardens by Vivian Russell (Frances Lincoln, pounds 25) has a triple time scale and cast: the mostly Renaissance churchmen and merchants who conceived and built them; Wharton's own splendidly purplish descriptions; and Russell's clear up-to-date account in words and pictures. Each garden has a fanciful history: the Villa d'Este in Lombardy was created by a rich Cardinal of Como; its grotto and mosaics were put in by a marquis and his ballerina wife, who added mock battlements for her next husband, a Napoleonic general. Queen Caroline of England was so entranced she forced her to sell it, renaming it after a common ancestor of her and her husband, George IV; five years later her builders, gardeners and oarsmen were brought over to England when she was tried for adultery. This book is gripping and gorgeous. Russell even thanks its designer, Ann Wilson.

Charleston: a Bloomsbury house and garden by Quentin Bell and Virginia Nicholson with photographs by Alan MacSweeney (Frances Lincoln, pounds 25) is a fabulous DIY story, with lashings of eminent Edwardians. Charleston Farmhouse in Sussex, from 1916 the home of various Bloomsberries including Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant, is architecturally unremarkable, but distinguished inside by the vitality of its hand-painted furniture, fabrics and other objects - and not just in the couple of rooms which usually illustrate it. These are useful devices for making small, low-ceilinged, even claustrophobic rooms attractive. The dining room, for example, is dominated by a large round table painted by Vanessa, surrounded by red lacquer and cane chairs designed by Roger Fry, while over it hangs a ceramic lamp made by Quentin Bell; Duncan thought up the stencilled wallpaper, and Vanessa made the curtains. Bell lived at Charleston from the age of six, and is well placed to give an account of life there, ably assisted by his daughter, Virginia Nicholson.

Ian Gow's Scottish Houses and Gardens: from the archives of Country Life (Aurum Press, pounds 35) traces the magazine's "rediscovery" of Scotland's historic houses after their years of deep Victorian Scottish-Baronial disguise. Gow gives a lively account of how knowledge of historic Scottish architecture was gradually built up by Country Life's architectural editor Laurence Weaver. The illustrations are soothing black and white - historic style being largely unchanging, it is hard to tell when they were taken. Don't miss the 3,000 interlocking antlers decking the beams of Mar Lodge's ballroom or Gribloch, an elegant house built just before the Second World War by Basil Spence.

On the same turf, batteries of pointed towers and sensational plasterwork in the form of figures, weapons, birds and animals are among the thrilling recurrent features of Great Houses of Scotland by Hugh Montgomery-Massingberd with photographs by Christopher Simon Sykes (Laurence King, pounds 40). It also features an apparently naked (but lavishly bewigged) portrait of the Queen Mother's ancestor, the 3rd Earl Strathmore, in sculptural pink body armour, at Glamis Castle. The book comes in an appropriately stately format. Of the 26 estates featured, only six are also found in the Country Life book, and even then quite different views and rooms are shown. Massingberd's racy text convincingly contends that these Caledonian residences more than match their English equivalents. Nor are the houses simply shrines to the past: the composer Gian Carlo Menotti plans to open an opera school at Yester in East Lothian; while at Ardkinglas on Loch Fyne, John Noble runs a flourishing seafood company employing as many locals as the estate did in its heyday.

London Living by Lisa Lovatt-Smith (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, pounds 25) is a glorious mish-mash of 30 of the most colourful and entertainingly tasteful private interiors in London. Several no longer exist, and one wonders which will still be here in 100 years time: Gilbert & George's curiously Victorian Spitalfields house, for example? Some are well known, but most are less familiar, from the chillingly severe minimalism of Doris Lockhart Saatchi to Peter Hinwood's gorgeous peppermint and Moorish mixture. Lovatt Smith has chosen well to promote prettiness and originality rather than slavish devotion to this year's bland bleached model (turn to page 40 for an extract). Also by her, The Fashion House: inside the homes of leading designers (Conran Octopus, pounds 30) parades the gamut of international chic: a Japanese water garden in Paris (Kenzo), majestic Empire style for a New York flat (Bill Blass), a pastel-hued Tuscan farmhouse for Paul Smith. It is fun, but suffers from a certain overstyling itself.

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