English Garden Eccentrics — curiouser and curiouser

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Landscape architect Todd Longstaffe-Gowan’s new book is, as befits its subject, a glorious cabinet of curiosities. Covering a wide selection of idiosyncratic gardeners and their equally singular gardens, it ranges from the early 17th to the early 20th centuries, taking in many of the stranger features of the English tradition of landscape design.

Longstaffe-Gowan avoids too many definitions, preferring a rambling profusion of oddity and incongruity. The precise nature of eccentricity proves impossible to pin down — he describes it as “playful incipient lunacy”, which doesn’t sound much fun — but the gardens included here demonstrate a stubborn dedication to whimsical flights of fancy. Among the many delights are hermits, goldfish, druids — and gnomes.

The book’s earliest subject is Thomas Bushell, a 17th-century mining engineer who created an extravagant grottoed water garden on his estate in Enstone, Oxfordshire. Contemporary accounts and plans reveal a fantasia of artifice built into the rocks, combining a taste for cod-historical landscaping with the latest hydraulic technology. Bushell’s garden also contained an Egyptian mummy given to him by Queen Henrietta Maria, wife of King Charles I, as well as an early example of an ornamental hermit.

The fashion for hermits peaked in the late 18th century, when they were particularly associated with the popular “picturesque” aesthetic in garden design, with its carefully planned asymmetry and its taste for perspective-enhancing solitary figures. In the mid 1700s, Sir Rowland Hill of Hawkstone Park in Shropshire, had a mechanical hermit in a purpose-built cave, about which a visitor remarked: “on your putting questions to him, his lips move and he answers in a hoarse voice, coughs as if almost exhausted.”

There are recurrent themes in English Garden Eccentrics — a taste for miniaturism, for example. The 19th-century passion for rock gardens saw alpine grandeur squeezed into much smaller spaces. In 1838, Elizabeth Broughton of Hoole House in Cheshire made a bonsai glacier, a model of the Mer de Glace, near Chamonix, using shrubs to represent trees and ground white spar to look like snow. Sixty years later, Sir Frank Crisp of Friar’s Park, near Henley, put up a mini-Matterhorn made of thousands of tons of York gritstone. At night, electric lights floodlit Crisp’s theme-park of animal models, grottoes and fake lakes.

The book also covers topiary, in all its strangeness — and among the many pleasures of the illustrations are some prints of London churchyard yews once cut into fantastical designs. However, the vogue for forcing nature into unnatural forms was not always popular: Alexander Pope thought it was an indication of “common taste”. The Victorian naturalist Charles Waterton, went the other way, preferring what we would now call controlled rewilding on his Yorkshire estate, building ivy-clad towers for owls and making his lake into a wildfowl reserve.

Most of Longstaffe-Gowan’s gardens are large enough to support a madcap vision — and his eccentrics rich enough. But the small projects are intriguing too. In the 1760s, for example, the great antiquarian William Stukeley managed to squeeze into his modest country retreat in Kentish Town a grotto, a hermitage, a druid-walk and a mausoleum.

English Garden Eccentrics is a compilation of enjoyably singular case studies but if there is an overarching theme it is that in gardens we find reflections of human yearning. They are, as Longstaffe-Gowan puts it, autobiographies of their owners. Perhaps the examples he highlights also represent an ineffable feeling of loss — of localism, folklore and myth — produced by an age of science. When in 1847 Sir Charles Isham filled the stonework caverns on his estate with terracotta gnomes and elfin blacksmiths, he was not only making a fairy theme park, he was trying, in his own way, to stem the tide of modernity.

English Garden Eccentrics: Three Hundred Years of Extraordinary Groves, Burrowings, Mountains and Menageries by Todd Longstaffe-Gowan, Yale, £30, 400 pages

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