December 2, 2017
I’ve written thousands of picture captions in my time for various books and magazines. They are the writer’s, or editor’s, first point of contact with the reader. Whose eyes don’t flick first to an illustration, then to the little explanation contained in the caption, before committing to read the bulk of the text? The sort of illustrated books I’ve written are constructed round this formula. Punchy captions packed with a surprising amount of information are best. ‘Three facts a line’ is my motto. And yet I’ve seen captions as clueless as ‘A church in France’.
Garden picture books can make lovely browsing, but captions determine the way we look at the photos. They can just tell you that the plant in the foreground is Persicaria ‘Firedance’, the rose ‘Maigold’ or the hills in the background the Brecon Beacons, – or they can interpret the scene for you. Culturally (it’s acid soil with high rainfall), historically (the terrace was built in 1900; the name of a designer), pictorially (the yew on the left balances the pergola on the right), ecologically, chromatically (colour contrast or harmony), hortatory (it’s time to get mulching) or even gnomically – in the spirit of Little Sparta. How would you caption the photo above? Is it about foxgloves, or complementary colours? Or maybe deutzias, or backlighting, or the shelter of a wall?
Whatever captions say, they direct your attention to this aspect or that. They prevent the garden from speaking for itself. I have often been tempted to label some garden incident, or corner, or vista with some form of notice, written on paper or carved in stone. If you have tried to create a mood, uplifting or contemplative, there is a temptation to say so. Avoid it: if you need to you have failed.
Plant labels, of course, have a different purpose. Making them permanent, legible and discreet is an art in itself.