Written by Chris Beardshaw
The original book The Story of Gardening by Penelope Hobhouse was published in 2002. Republication, therefore, may seem a little premature, but it's worth remembering that this new publication appeals to an entirely new generation of gardeners, eager to contextualise the unique approach British and gardeners worldwide adopt.
When I heard it was being revamped and updated, I awaited its release with anticipation. The original was a much-admired book on my library shelf and one that, unusually, set out to offer some insight into the lineage and context of gardening from ancient times to the modern-day. It is this wonderful opportunity to view gardens, gardening and the wider concept of the human perspective on cultivating and tending designed garden spaces that appeals.
From the outset, the book is attractive and visually appealing. The on-trend nature-green and gold cover makes a great impression and ensures it will look fabulous either artfully displayed or perused over on the drawing board.
Inside, the stylish approach continues with beautiful colours denoting the start of each chapter and a wealth of visuals in the form of photos, illustrations, extracts from antique books, portraits, copies of paintings and artworks, bring rich life and interpretation to the text. There is also generosity in the scale and space afforded to the visuals and a thoughtful approach taken on the arrangement, so this becomes a book valued not just for the written information but as a pictographic library too.
Penelope Hobhouse needs little introduction, as a much-revered garden designer, writer, lecturer, historian and gardener. She elicits feelings of awe from many in our profession and from many who have sought to understand or develop garden spaces. For the 2019 publication, she has had the assistance of garden writer Ambra Edwards, who has worked with Penelope on the updates to the text and also contributed the last chapter - ‘Visions of the Future’.
The book tells the story, or rather stories, of how gardens and gardening have evolved over thousands of years across the globe. No small undertaking! I have studied and also teach garden history, so whilst much of it is very familiar to me, there is something wonderful about immersing yourself into the detail that a book on this scale can provide. It charts the history from the earliest civilisations, through ancient Greece and Rome, Islamic gardens, Medieval gardens, Renaissance gardens, through to English, Chinese, and Japanese styles and then, of course, the Americas. Yet this is more than a reworked chronology, it is far richer and more holistic, covering botany, planting styles, herbalism, technologies, parks and even tales on the extraordinary way plants were transported by Victorian plant hunters.
For anyone looking to understand how gardens and the act of gardening have evolved, this is an excellent text. It is presented in such a way that cover to cover indulgence isn’t essential since cursory, ad-hoc forays reveal significant insights. As such this is perfect for a winter fireside read to ensure a new level of confidence and understanding on the art of gardening prevails come spring activities in the garden.