A golden era of publishing loses its gloss
AThe Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady, published the previous year, The Englishwoman’s Garden hit its moment, chiming with a post-Seventies craving for indulgence. Over the next decade, it spawned several sequels and spin-offs, all of almost-identical format and largely interchangeable titles that have kept the gate-legged tables piled high ever since.
For all our history of garden imagemaking, from medieval Books of Hours onwards, the cult of the luxury garden book, and the armchair fantasising it inspired, is a 20th-century phenomenon. Nine years after Country Life magazine launched in 1897 (boasting “the finest pictorial printing machinery obtainable” specially imported from the United States), the best of its garden photographs, by Charles Latham, were collected into the three volume series Gardens Old & New, edited by H Avray Tipping. The effect was revolutionary.
After the text-led books of before, with their line drawings or smudgy nyone of reading age in 1980, who grew up in a gardening household, will recall a bestseller called The Englishwoman’s Garden. Edited by two well-connected queen bees of the gardening scene, Rosemary Verey and Alvilde Lees-Milne, the cover featured what would become one of the most reprinted garden images of the Eighties: the view down the pebble path of the yellow- flowered laburnum walk at Barnsley House, Verey’s Gloucestershire garden (see cover of Gardening, January 4).
The book was a defining example of the shiny garden book. Luxuriant to behold, it exuded exactly the correct extravagance of the wellchosen hardback. Neither too heavy nor awkwardly large, its ramble through 36 private manor gardens, each described by their mainly aristocratic female owners, was ideal for leafing through in your armchair while winter rain rattled the windows.
Like grey watercolours, here was the garden framed and balanced by professional eyes, large format, pinsharp, architectural. “As albums of charming pictures for garden-lovers and a mine of elegant suggestions to the garden-maker, these volumes are the best thing of their kind we have ever seen,” declared the Daily Chronicle.
Because the images were photographs, too, there was a sense that they were real. Which they were but only in a sense. Every garden was caught at the best moment of its best day. The sun shone, the flowers were out, the lawn just mown, topiary just clipped, early morning mist just so. A subtle tradition had begun. The garden was becoming a primarily visual experience, laid out for the eye and the camera, above any other sense.
When colour reproduction became possible, of all areas of publishing, none had better claim than the gardening book. After the Second World War, valiant attempts were made at colour throughout, such as TC Mansfield’s The Border in Colour, with its lurid, hallucinogenic flower portraits, but most had to contend with “colour plates” on one-gradehigher quality paper, bound either at the back, or in unwieldy clumps miles from the relevant text.
By 1965, improved lithographic techniques allowed the Reverend W Keble Martin’s Concise British Flora in Colour. The 88-year-old parson’s 1,400 watercolours, hand-painted over six decades, sold a brisk 100,000 copies. (“There is hope for humanity after all,” declared a southern England padre.)
A decade of further improvements and, once again, flowers were the ideal demonstration vehicle, this time photographed under studio conditions by Roger Phillips. His Wild Flowers of Britain sold 400,000 copies.
For 25 years from 1980, the glossy gardening book entered its heyday. With the abolition of the net book agreement in 1997 and reduced costs by employing hi-tech digital processes and cheaper labour in the Far East and China, every area of gardening – plant encyclopedias, how-to manuals, design guides, garden portraits, gardener portraits and flower monographs – could receive the luxury treatment.
It’s hard to pin down precisely the pleasure conferred by such books. It doesn’t seem to be the urge to recreate what’s in their pages (just as lavish and bestselling cook books don’t necessarily confer the urge to cook). Is it a vicarious reward for our own, often poorly repaid, gardening efforts? On the principle that you can only properly relax in and enjoy someone else’s garden (because only there can you note the delights, rather than what needs doing) it gives back what we crave but get too little of from our own gardens.
Whatever the pleasure, it seems to be waning. How many gardening books from the past year can you name, apart from Tim Richardson’s The New English Garden? As the cheerleader for luxury publishing, has the garden book’s moment passed? Are we suffering from paradise fatigue? In the mid-Eighties, says Jane McMorland-Hunter of Hatchard’s, cookery and gardening sections in bookshops tended to be lumped together, with gardening, until 2005, easily outstripping cookery. Today, she says, gardening is a mere third of the size of cookery.
Cooking is universal, cross-cultural, reaching over boundaries of travel, language, religion, culture. Its market is bigger. Everyone has a kitchen; only a few have gardens.
Yet cooking, too, seems to have entered the manic, feeding frenzy stage. It will be interesting to see what happens. Meanwhile, treasure those shiny hardbacks with their fading photographs of old stone and fresh blossom.
The Garden in the Clouds by Antony Woodward [Harper Collins] is available from the Telegraph Bookshop for £8.99 + £1.25 p&p. Call 0844 871 1514 or visit books.telegraph.co.uk
Picture perfect: the garden of Rosemary Verey, above, at Barnsley House was used for the cover of ‘The Englishwoman’s Garden’, top