English Garden Eccentrics
Paul Mellon Centre for studies in British Art
English Garden Eccentrics brims with fun and erudition as Todd Longstaffe-Gowan introduces us to an extraordinary cast of characters, from topiary fanatics to tunnellers and from rockery builders to the creators of vivariums. One of the best known, William Stukeley, was said to be ‘a mixture of simplicity, drollery, ingenuity, superstition and antiquarianism’, attributes that apply to many of those featured in these pages.
There is relatively little horticulture here; alpines struggled in the crevices between the rockwork of a ‘Matterhorn under an English sky’ at Sir Frank Crisp’s Friar Park outside Henley-on-Thames. A Swiss glacier (Mer de Glace) reappeared in Cheshire, conjured up by Lady Broughton at Hoole House with white spar and marble chippings and bordered with contorted firs. Elsewhere, a hollow in a box hedge or a stone hermitage might be occupied by a living creature, in an aviary or menagerie as the case might be. The book is full of superb and ingenious illustrations.
Longstaffe-Gowan’s gardeners were wealthy or bookish, but set trends far beyond their own circles. Pulhamite, a late 19th-century mixture of rubble and cement, was used to ornament the public realm from Ramsgate to Hull, while hedge-side topiary clipped to form a street number or a procession of elephants is the humble relative of grander locations.
It is, perhaps, inevitable that the final chapter is devoted to the Garden of Eden, albeit in Bedford. Unexceptional 12 Albany Street was the home of the Panacea Society, headed by Mabel Barltrop, who established a tiny fiefdom in her back garden shaded by the Norse mythological tree, a weeping ash.
The book’s subjects ingeniously appropriated their chosen elements and then shared the result, often with deserving or intrigued visitors. The evanescence of such creations represented a version of ‘living biography’. Long-term survival was not an objective, but this inspiring and oddball book is their monument.
Gillian Darley’s books include John Soane: An Accidental Romantic (Yale University Press) and Excellent Essex (Old Street Publishing).