A golden era of pub­lish­ing loses its gloss

The Daily Telegraph - Gardening - - Front Page -

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

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