How much more room for progress is there in photographing gardens? Books like The English Country House Garden, out at Christmas, by George Plumptre with photographs by Marcus Harpur, seem to have perfected the dream scenario of consummate skill and taste in design and execution – first in gardening, then in photography. They create a never-never land of perfect flowers, perfect viewpoints on perfect designs in perfect weather. Rough winds come nowhere near.
Harpur is the inheritor of a strong tradition, son of Jerry Harpur, whose books encompass for more than the usual round of English gardens. He may have been the first to show us great gardens from all over the world. I once bumped into him in a lakeside garden high in the Andes.
His unglamorous roots were in Essex, following in turn in the steps of Harry Smith, whose garden picture library was the first resource of magazine editors in the 1960s and ’70s. In due course the archive was taken over by Anthony Huxley and Dick Robinson, the photographer who gave his own garden at Hyde Hall to the RHS.
Hyde Hall was a horse whose mouth needed careful scrutiny. The Robinsons’ garden was a triumph of hope over experience, an isolated hillock in the driest part of England, windswept, with no proper access, its views featureless except for pylons. It is unrecognisable today, after decades of RHS investment, but it was a bold move to take a stake in a part of England as unlike leafy Surrey as could be. Essex was not without its garden history: Ellen Wilmott of Warley Place, Beth Chatto at Elmstead Market, Audley End, the Gibberd Garden, Rivers nursery, Pemberton’s roses…. and dreams – the role of photography.
Where does garden photography go next? Technical perfection is in the bag. We would laugh, today, at the grimy images of only thirty years ago. Beyond the purely descriptive, perhaps? The Garden Museum is putting on a show of pictures by Rachel Warne called Faded Glory. proving the visual strength of neglected or abandoned gardens. (My favourite of all the photographs in my own book, The Principles of Gardening, was the opening page; Kenneth Scowen’s shot of an abandoned Edwardian Garden fountain in winter, overgrown (but just to the right degree) with long grass and thistles and old man’s beard.)
But the museum director, Christopher Woodward, has form when it comes to ruins. His own book, In Ruins (Chatto 2001), is a masterly evocation of what they say to us. Far more, perhaps, than straight edges and weedless borders. ‘When we contemplate ruins’, says Woodward, ‘we contemplate our own future’