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BOOKS How to decipher the landscape What Gardens Mean By Stephanie Ross. University of Chicago Press, 1998. 285pp. £27.50. (Distributor John Wiley 01243 779777)

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Since eighteenth-century landscape gardens were symbolic journeys in Classical literature, or emblematic programmes for visitors to meditate upon, unravelling the texts is an intriguing but abstruse enterprise in our unlettered times. The author of What Gardens Mean is an American philosopher who takes a refreshing view of the subject, even if her own academic discipline requires her to define everything a little too exhaustively.

The great English gardens which support her argument - Pope's Twickenham, Stowe, Stourhead, West Wycombe and Painshill - represent, for Stephanie Ross, as I suspect for most of us, 'high art'. If somewhat esoteric, they are still appealing, and Ross aims to connect them to some modern form of art in the landscape.

The 'beholder's share', to use Gombrich's term, is her concern. Viewing cannot be passive, but how do late twentieth-century visitors to such landscape gardens, unfamiliar with the precise form of Aeneas' journey or Virgilian allusion, deal with their impressions? Even the well-educated Georgian visitor needed the help of a guidebook.

Psychologists can measure the benefits of a green and pleasant outlook. 'Delightful Scenes. . . have a kindly Influence on the Body as well as Mind,' wrote Addison in 1712, almost 50 years before Burke, and longer still before Richard Payne Knight and Uvedale Price picked the aesthetic bones clean. Addison's 'greatness, novelty and beauty' were to become the Sublime, the Beautiful and the Picturesque. That busy century of intellectual jousting went further, into satire and literature, with Jane Austen, Thomas Love Peacock, and Goethe's Elective Affinities - an important strand which Ross does not pursue.

To help in her readings of the landscape, she finds the geographer Jay Appleton's 'prospect and refuge' theory deficient, offering no more than a biological reading, and she proposes instead a subtler distinction - between invitation and enclosure. Landscape offers many other levels of experience, beyond the poetic and the painterly. There is the strong pull of association and memory, the sheer power of physiological and aesthetic responses; the instant gratification of being drenched in autumn colour or spring scent at Stourhead makes the case.

Ross has a harder time dealing with 'the new arts introduced on the coat- tails of existing arts'. Is gardening, as a high art, moribund as many have argued? Ross deals cursorily with the Post-Modernism of Martha Schwartz and Ian Hamilton Finlay and evades her own definitions by plumping for environmental art. She sees James Turrell, Hamish Fulton and Walter de Maria (among others) as offering layers of meaning just as stimulating and subtle as the landscapes of the Georgian amateur or his professional helper.

One of Ross's eighteenth-century examples, West Wycombe, is far less examined than Stowe or Stourhead. Here, it is said, was a ribald garden: the fountains planted to look like great breasts, and continually spouting milky fluid, were the tamest in an entire iconography of sexual innuendo. As Ross points out, the reputation of the place (and it may all have been rumour), best known as the home of the Hell Fire Club, went before it to suggest a suitable symbolism in the landscape. West Wycombe is proof positive of the power of the landscape to enforce allusion.

Ross's book is continually illuminating in unexpected ways and almost manages to link the rich history of the Classical English landscape garden to the amorphous, slippery subject that landscape art is today.

Gillian Darley writes on landscape and architecture

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