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Arcadia revisited

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Gentlemen & Players: Gardeners of the English Landscape by Timothy Mowl. Sutton Publishing, 2000. £25

The English landscape, and those who have spent their lives remodelling it, repay constant examination. Timothy Mowl's book concentrates on the work of 14 key figures or partnerships, ranging from nurserymen to great landowners over the period 1620 to 1820, and claims to offer a 'radical reappraisal of the great age of English Arcadia'.

Mowl argues, rather mystifyingly, that the gentlemen of the title have not received their just desserts and presents landscape gardening as a kind of inverted class war on the grass. The difference of culture, intellectual background and material circumstance between the rising nurseryman and his wealthy, usually aristocratic, client is hardly cause for comment.

Patronage is infinitely subtle, ranging from the sympathies that can sometimes lead to a partnership made in heaven or, conversely, the hellish situation that arises when antipathy and frustration poison the relationship and, thus, the project.

The great strength of Mowl's book is his observation of the gardens and parks throughout the two centuries, either as they survive or according to the best possible evidence. His device of walking the reader through the landscape gives the book a refreshing sense of reality, an airy sense of being out in the park or garden in question.

He tramps the overgrown allees of Melbourne Hall with gusto, he unravels Rousham with care and sensitivity and reminds us of the sheer jollity of a landscape such as Hawkstone, with its designed frissons and nerve-tingling delights.

Inevitably, the constant theme of the book is the English absorption with Nature, its potential, its limitations, its associations and possibilities - not that there is any kind of neat chronological or linear progression in our obsession.

Mowl enjoys his characters, the more eccentric the better, although he can also be unfairly dismissive of a man or his efforts.

The 'grovelling' Sir Thomas Robinson did nothing worse than admire - in the overblown vernacular of his age - the new gardens laid out by William Kent at Carlton House, while to accuse John Evelyn of 'blowing with every wind of politics' flies in the face of his staunch, if disillusioned, royalist views. Moreover, to suggest that Evelyn stole John Beale's work for his own Elysium Britannicum is to misunderstand the nature of that great encyclopedic project, and not recognise the shared thrill of the seventeenth-century steeplechase for information - a pursuit which had little to do with authorship and everything to do with knowledge and generosity.

Mowl has refreshed the history of landscape design in this volume, incorporating many recent discoveries and reminding his readers of overlooked aspects of apparently well-known and exhaustively chronicled landscapes. Who remembers that Stourhead's eclectic garden buildings were 'edited' away in the purist climate of the 1780s, while the notion of 'Capability' Brown as an innovator is easily forgotten in the deluge of work in his later professional years. Although the book is well and generously illustrated, Mowl's publishers have let him down by providing no sources or picture list.

Gentlemen and Players is energetic garden history, a book which ought to reach a wide readership - many of whom will soon, like this reviewer, be off to discover (or rediscover) some of these landscapes for themselves.

Gillian Darley writes on architecture and landscape

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