I’ve scarcely looked up from a sumptuous new book since I came across it in the library. I stood turning the pages for half an hour before I realised I needed a chair, I was so gripped. Its name is A Natural History of English Gardening 1650-1800; its author Mark Laird, Senior Lecturer in the history of landscape architecture at Harvard and consultant on such historical reconstructions as the gardens at Strawberry Hill, Painshill, and Hestercombe.
At first I wasn’t sure what the title meant. Natural History obviously includes the study of plants, including their environment in gardens. A wider view takes in the gardens’ animal inhabitants, too, and the conditions in which they live. So the subject widens out to embrace flora and fauna, gardens, gardeners, their households and families, the philosophies and politics, fashions and crazes that sway them. Take shooting, for example; the master of the house wants low cover for partridges, trees for higher birds. Shooting flying birds came in with lighter flintlock guns in the 18th century; landscape designers had to take this into account. And of course and above all the weather (which for London gardens included filthy air); the 17th century ended with winters that repeatedly froze the Thames. The Italian cypress gave way to the newly-discovered Irish yew.
John Evelyn in the 17th century and Gilbert White in the 18th were natural historians who epitomize the genre. Women play a far greater part than most accounts allow. Some are as prominent as the Queen or as talented as Mary Delany or the German Maria Sybilla Merian, others like the duchesses of Portland and Beaufort were insatiable collectors and botanists, amateur scientists making important contributions to botany. Ducal grandeur must have been overwhelming. Her Grace of Beaufort gardened 15 acres in Chelsea (where Beaufort Street is now) and at Badminton counted sixty avenues .
Mark Laird follows his characters in microscopic detail,and sets them firmly in the life of their times. Who were their friends? What nurserymen did they patronise and befriend? When and how did they travel? The book is richly and beautifully illustrated with botanical paintings and drawings, portraits and topographical engravings – a gallery of references so generously captioned that you can flit back and forth across the subject cross-pollinating ideas. You may be sitting at this for a long time.