More from The Times (2012)

A green and pleasant three decades

Stephen Anderton welcomes the New Arcadian Journal’s 30th anniversary

(The Times, Register: Garden History, Saturday 30 June 2012, p. 90)

When William, Prince of Orange and future king of England, landed in Devon in 1688, he had with him not only 500 ships, 20,000 mariners and 20,000 soldiers, but also, to accompany his entry into Exeter, “200 blacks brought from the Netherlands’ planta­tions in America, wearing embroidered caps lined with white fur, and plumes of white feathers”. Some entrance. They were his cheer-leaders.

This we learn from the New Arcadian Journal’s 30th-anniversary issue entit­led “The Blackamoor and the Geor­gian Garden”, which explores the signif­icance in English gardens of the sculp­tor Van Nost’s famous kneeling blackamoor boy holding aloft a sundial. It is one of history’s most copied statues.

It is surprising to learn how blackamoor statuary was a positive symbol celebrating Europe’s domin­ion over four continents (in this case Africa) before it was borrowed as a tool against slavery. The image of the black­amoor was just as prevalent in Ancient Greek and Italian Renaissance art and it is suggested that “every Palladian mansion in the care of the National Trust was built with the profits of the Atlantic slave trade”.

The NAJ prints 300 copies per issue, all hand-numbered in ink by its editor and founder Patrick Eyres. His mission is to “combine art and scholarship to in­vestigate the cultural politics of histori­cal landscapes, contemporary re-inter­pretation and conservation”.

It’s no easy read, yet to those interested in gardens in the broadest sense it is fascinating. More than that, the NAJ has documented 30 years in which Brit­ain’s gardens never had it so good.

Those years saw the rise and respect­ability of garden history. The Garden History Society advised government on planning issues, and English Herit­age’s Register of Historic Parks and Gardens has given protection to the nation’s finest gardens. (England, not fought over for 400 years, has more healthy, well-maintained country houses and gardens than the rest of Europe.) Within Britain itself there are more gardens in more styles and peri­ods simultaneously in good order, than ever before.

High-quality colour printing and photography has led to a boom in gar­den books and (what was once) cheap petrol fuelled the garden day-out and National Gardens Scheme. Garden cen­tres, cashing in on the novelty of con­tainerised plants that could be planted all year round, made gardening a con­sumer boom. Television showed that people could approach garden-making from a spark of imagination, without having learned to prick out at their grandfather’s knee. Truly, English gar­dens have never had it so good.

There is no better place to under­stand the late 20th-century love of gar­den restoration than the NAJ issue 67/68, “Painshill Park – The Pioneer­ing Restoration”, a compendium of essays by experts. One remarkable piece, by Mavis Batey, former chairman of the Garden History Society and Bletchley Park code-cracker, sets out exactly how attitudes to the great gar­dens have changed since the 1970s, when they were regarded as culturally expendable, and what efforts it took to find them political protection.

In the 1970s Painshill lay dying and forgotten beneath a mixture of jungle and vicious forestry, marooned by main roads. By a miracle of willpower, ingenuity, research and fund-raising it has survived, and the restoration has taken it back pretty much to its original open spaces and planting and architec­ture. It has been a huge success and no less than such an influential 18th-centu­ry garden deserves. We need such dis­tinct, important examples of garden styles, well preserved and in their origi­nal condition, to understand our cultur­al history; it was Sir Geoffrey Jellico who memorably suggested that the English landscape park was probably Britain’s greatest contribution to Euro­pean arts.

Yet since 2000 a pendulum has beg­un to swing backwards; garden restora­tion has begun to be regarded as a cause of atrophy, religiously returning living gardens to a fixed date in history and arresting a healthy process of devel­opment. Interesting, then, to read A Time to Plant, a new and beautifully photographed book by Hugh Cavend­ish, about his rejuvenation over 30 years of his family’s garden at Holker Hall, Cumbria. Lord Cavendish was once a commissioner for English Herit­age and chairman of its Gardens Panel, yet even he rails against restoration when it leads to fossilisation and an eco­nomically unsustainable future. It is rare to find a book on the subject of gar­dens so consistently candid yet unsenti­mental and it shows what it is for a family, not an institution, to have to cope with a garden in need of major renewal if it is to survive.

With a garden of less importance than Painshill, Cavendish took a freer approach to Holker’s preservation, a gardener’s approach. He replaced the 19th-century formal garden by Thomas Mawson with something fresh­er and better-built, to make Holker more attractive to the public and there­fore financially viable.

This attracted criticism from the his­toric lobby. (Ironically, it was ruthless clearances that created our 18th-century landscape parks in the first place.) But Cavendish was right to do as he did: there is a world of difference between restoring absolutely some­thing so special as Painshill and allow­ing a lesser garden like Holker to devel­op. That was always the tradition in British gardens, even if it meant losing elements of the garden’s past.

Cavendish writes that, after the work was done, he received a letter from Eng­lish Heritage advising him that the Holker garden was being downgraded in the Register of Historic Parks and Gardens “because we had done too much gardening”.

If Cavendish lived tang enough, “the letter good-naturedly went on, the gar­den would be upgraded again, reflect­ing the fact that our efforts had become historic”.

The New Arcadian Journal uses a gen­erous number of imaginative, charac­terful line drawings, rather than photo­graphs. Look at Chris Broughton’s Privy Garden at Hampton Court Pal­ace, or his imaginary slaving ship sail­ing through the parkland of its own Palladian mansion. It is a wonderful relief from the universal glitz of modern garden photography.

The quarterly garden magazine Hortus has also now celebrated its 25th birthday and similarly contains only a very few black and white photographs accompanied by Simon Dorrell’s cool, compelling engravings. It is the writing and the thinking that count, without the distractions of full colour.

Of course Hortus and the NAJ will never outsell Gardners’ World maga­zine, but they are important parts of British gardening. We should celebrate them. They will be the stuff of 22nd-century research.

[Two illustrations by Chris Broughton for the New Arcadian Journal: Privy Garden, Hampton Court with blackamoor and Indian slave envisioned in their original positions; below: Cannon Hall, Yorkshire, and the owning family’s slave ship.]