Friday, January 24, 2014

Book Review: "The Education of a Gardener" by Russell Page

A classic garden design book
Has it really been ten days since I last posted? Yes, and this is because I have spent the past two weeks reading "The Education of a Gardener" by Russell Page, a book that is not only a classic among garden books, but also more challenging to read and absorb than most garden books.

"The Education" was published in 1962, and is essentially an autobiography of a life spent designing gardens, mostly in Europe and England. Russell Page (1906-1985) is today regarded as one of the great landscape designers of the 20th century.

Born in England, he designed gardens ranging from small town gardens in Paris to extensive formal gardens for French chateaux, cliffs-edge gardens overlooking the Mediterranean and the park-like setting of the stately pile at Longleat House in Wiltshire, England. His clients included the Duke of Windsor, Prince Aly Khan, an assortment of various kings, duchesses and barons, sundry captains of industry and a number of museums and public gardens.

Il Carpeneto, near Turin, Italy. Impressive, yes?

His book is a compendium of his thoughts about the process of working out the problems of designing gardens for these mostly illustrious clients, and in that vein, it is a fascinating glimpse into a rarefied world that most of us will never otherwise encounter. And it is written with the wit and command of the English language displayed by the men and women educated before WWII at British public schools.

However, it is not a book from which the average person, who likes to plant a few flowers and veg on his little plot, will learn about "how to garden." It is, rather, intended as advice for other landscape designers concerning how to design gardens for people who are not gardeners themselves.

Villa Silvio Pellico, near Turin, Italy

A major issue with "The Education" is that the book contains only a very limited number of small,
black and white photos of gardens that Page designed. Gardening is largely a visual art, and it was difficult to picture what Page tried, often at some length, to describe about various gardens. (It's as if a book about paintings contained hardly any reproductions of those paintings, only lengthy written descriptions of them. The reader would still have no idea what the paintings themselves actually looked like after reading the book. A picture is truly worth far more than a thousand words in this case.) I understand that not many photos of Page's work survived and the gardens themselves are mostly no longer extant (and publishing technology in 1962 was limited and costly), but this is, nevertheless, a major failing in a book about gardening and makes it much less useful to readers.

Another issue is the sections of the book that cover plant materials. I found it pretty hard-going to slog through lengthy paragraphs listing numerous Latin names of species that do not grow in the colder zones of the world and that I therefore have no familiarity with. My eyes often glazed over and I found myself skipping chunks of text during these chapters.

However, the book's lack of application for recreational gardeners isn't due to the scale and expense or the exotic locations of the gardens that Page designed; his principles can certainly be applied to small town gardens and there is even a chapter in his book devoted to such gardens.

Rather, the major impediment is Page's ascetic restraint in his use of materials. His mission, when deciding how to enhance the existing landscape of a place, was to figure out what the main idea or feeling of a place should be (the genius loci), and then remove nearly everything else that did not contribute to that "wonder of wholeness and unity." This required a strictly limited palette of plants and other materials. Grass, trees, hedges and perhaps a large formal pool are the materials he mostly worked in. Above all, restraint was his mantra.

Flowers, if permitted at all, were a severely restrained affair, limited to a few formal planting blocks or large pots of annuals, or relegated to a far corner in a walled garden if the property owner unreasonably insisted on having flowers.

A few daffodils are permitted at the Fresnay le Bouffard in France. A lovely setting to be sure, 
but not what I call a garden.

Of course, this floral banishment is completely out of keeping with what most recreational gardeners want in their gardens today: flowers, vegetables and a variety of other beautiful plants, and Page acknowledges this. I suspect it's probably the main reason he worked mostly in France: as he pointed out, Paris gardens "are seen as a decoration to be admired, whereas in London I feel that they are primarily a vehicle for an English love of cultivating growing things." Page's spare designs were complete in themselves and didn't allow for much random plant shopping by owners after their completion, which would be difficult for most modern gardeners to abide by.

Most gardeners today don't, however, want a disorganized jumble of random plants; we do want some sort of overall design to best display our lovely growing things. And no one enjoys feeling a sneaking suspicion that their garden is "inappropriate" for their house or its setting. Certainly some of Page's advice is universal and good for any gardener, including these points:

  1. Paths should indeed always lead somewhere
  2. Gardens should mainly be approached through, and seen best from, the house
  3. Massing and repetition of plants does give a striking effect

But I'm not certain that Page's strongly held and somewhat snobbish opinions regarding what was artistically appropriate and what was in bad taste from 1930 to 1960 in wealthy people's formal Continental gardens necessarily apply to the modern concept of gardens made by small-scale owner-gardeners. Reading the book may stoke anxieties among ordinary gardeners about the appropriateness or "tastefulness" of their gardens (not a bad thing, some might say with curled lip, but I don't agree that inhibiting people from enjoying their gardens is beneficial, except perhaps to landscape designers selling their own tasteful skills).

A small garden in Paris with simple lines.

Concerning flowers, for all his deprecation of them in general and disdain for flimsy, briefly flowering, high-maintenance herbacious borders in particular, he does admit that he must "temper (my) strictures against certain annuals for which I find no use, when I see a Devonshire cottage garden where fushias, hydrangeas and roses grow companionably out of a polychrome carpet of mixed annuals - nigellas, nemesias, nemophilias, Shirley poppies, with ferns, houseleeks and all sorts of chance seedlings flourishing in every joint of the old stone walls and steps and flagged paths."

By this, he does seem to admit that his style of gardens was not for everyone, and that even if such examples of haphazardly free-flowering plots were not what he considered to be gardens as Works of Art, they do have a certain appealing, simple, unpretentious charm (much like the simple folk who made them, he no doubt thought). Well, count me in as an adherent of simple, free-flowering, non-Work-of-Art gardens.

The garden Page designed for Edith Wharton at Pavillon Colombe near Paris. Nothing but pinks (dianthus) bordered with santolina and accented by yews. Finally, some flowers, even if strictly limited to one kind.

"The Education of a Gardener" by Russell Page will obviously be most useful for landscape designers and probably should be required reading for those in training to be such. It is an important primary document for those interested in garden history, and would also be of interest to students of 20th-century British and European architectural history.

Despite my reservations about the book based upon both its shortcomings and my different taste in garden styles, I'm glad that I did read it, because I feel that I learn something from reading any autobiography enumerating what a person has learned over their lifetime. But I don't think that it will change how I garden or how I look at gardens, as this classic garden book seems to have done for many readers before me.

1 comment:

  1. Hello Beth, I have just been writing a review about this book and when I did a google search I found this great post. Really excellent, I enjoyed reading it. You wrote it before I found your blog. I haven't really written a proper review but I would like to direct people here to learn more about the book. I have no idea how to link with it, so could you leave a comment on my blog and leave a link please?.