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Digging for history: Gillian Mawrey, editor of Historic Gardens Review, introduces the study of historic gardens as a hotbed of historical research, sheer pleasure and campaigning for conservation.

TYNTESFIELD, THE NATIONAL TRUST'S FLAGSHIP acquisition near Bristol, attracts 600-800 people a day, all keen to see its High Victorian architecture and decoration. Today's visitors walk up to the house through the gardens which, like the house, are undergoing their own costly and thorough restoration. The magnificent carpet bedding on the terrace is much admired and the Kitchen Garden, with its espaliered fruit trees, seems to exert a particular fascination.

The National Trust has been doing this sort of thoughtful conservation, based on research into the individual sites and the horticultural traditions of the days in which they were first laid out, ever since the 1950s; yet it is the sad and extraordinary fact that Britain's historic gardens, unlike her listed buildings, are still not properly protected. Indeed, they were not even categorized in any formal way until the 1980s, when Dr Christopher Thacker; one of the founders of the Garden History Society, went round the country on his own, like a latter-day Arthur Young, recording for English Heritage the gardens that he personally considered important.

Thacker was typical of garden historians of his generation in having been trained in another discipline. While teaching French and German literature at Reading University, he realized that parks and gardens had played a significant role in the lives and thinking of some of the greatest European writers, including Pope, Voltaire and Rousseau. He and other scholars, such as Roy Strong and John Dixon Hunt, now of the University of Pennsylvania, have since explored the literary, artistic, social and philosophical links between gardens and the cultural worlds that create them. Yet even today it can be difficult to persuade literary critics, social historians or academic philosophers that gardens are as valid a subject for study as Ancient Rome or the French Revolution.

In the 1990s a young generation of garden historians started to publish and a range of general books about historic gardens began to become available, while specialists could access various learned journals. But the subject was still virtually ignored by magazines and broadsheet newspapers. Although they often offered debate at a fairly high level about architectural history and conservation, editors tended to see gardens in more practical horticultural terms: they might be interested in which varieties of dahlia, for instance, would grow best in which soils, rather than which plants might have been preferred by a great garden designer such as Gertrude Jekyll.

While the historic gardens that many people first think of may be those now safely in the hands of the National Trust or similar public bodies in Britain or on the Continent, the field is far larger, and more global, than that. Publications such as Historic Gardens Review aim to get people all over the world interested--perhaps even involved--in caring for their own historic parks and gardens, conserving them where possible, researching them and sharing information and enthusiasm. The scope for action and study is international. Gardens have been important to most societies worldwide, but their role as part of a country's heritage is not always appreciated. The first accurate restoration of one of India's Moghul gardens, that of Humayun's Tomb in Delhi, was carried out only in the last decade, while in countries such as Syria and Russia--even France--there are hundreds of parks and gardens whose historic value has never been noticed at all.

It is not just the gardens created by the like of Jekyll, Capability Brown or Le Notre that should also be considered 'historic'. Interesting landscapes were created around mental and TB hospitals, for example, as an aspect of their therapeutic function. Undervalued by health planners and forgotten by most social historians, these gardens are disappearing and frequently the documentation about their creation is thrown away.

Many gardens are still threatened by neglect or development. In 2004 Historic Gardens Review helped to save the garden round the Pueyrredon Museum near Buenos Aires, with ancient carob tree under which the Argentinian general planned his country's liberation with Jose de San Martin in the 1810s; while closer to home a campaign is under way to stop Camden Council erecting senti-permanent marquees in London's Lincoln's Inn Fields.

Journalists sometimes complain that gardens are never reviewed in the way that plays, concerts or restaurants are. In fact, Historic Gardens Review does try to 'review' major gardens. After several visits, we report on how well the owners, whether public or private, are preserving the historic elements, how good the general maintenance is, and whether the amenities are adequate. Occasionally it is necessary to be critical: visitors have recently been disappointed by the maintenance of the classical eighteenth-century gardens around the chatteau de Beloeil near Brussels. This important garden is owned by the Prince de Ligne but as it has received public money, it seems reasonable to comment on whether it is being well spent.

In the current issue, as well as articles on Edouard Andre (1840-1922), the French landscape architect who created Sefton Park, Liverpool's largest park; on sundials in English gardens; and on the centenary of the creation of the famous potager or kitchen garden at Villandry on the Loire, Historic Gardens Review looks at an iconic modern garden, Little Sparta in Scotland, whose creator, Ian Hamilton Finlay, is very much alive. At every turn in this beautiful landscape, Finlay makes conscious references to the past, asking the visitor to consider it in relation to classical Greece and Rome or the French Revolution, while carved inscriptions cite Rousseau and Pope, linking his garden to both places and events in the past.

One might think that more recent gardens would be well-documented and easy to research. Sadly, this is not always the case. In the autumn of 2001, a time when bombs were raining down on Kabul, we received an article about the remarkable gardens that once adorned the British embassy there before the Russian invasion. It was accompanied by excellent pictures taken by Piers Carter, British ambassador from 1968-72.

Lord Curzon himself had decreed the building of the Residence in 1990s, so I asked the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in London to help. The Afghanistan desk told me that the FCO itself keeps no archive material on any of its embassies. Everything, they said kindly, was kept in the embassy concerned. Knowing the site had been destroyed by rioters in the 1990s, we abandoned the quest and published the article without supplementary material. It turned out to be one of our most popular ever:

Gillian Mawrey is the founding editor of Historic Gardens Review, Historic Gardens Foundation, 34 River Court, Upper Ground, London SE1 9PE, UK.Tel: +44 (0)20 7633 9165 Fax: +44 (0)20 7401 7072 Email: Web:
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Title Annotation:FRONTLINE
Author:Mawrey, Gillian
Publication:History Today
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Feb 1, 2006
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