English Garden Eccentrics: Three Hundred Years of Extraordinary Groves, Burrowings, Mountains and Menageries by Todd Longstaffe-Gowan - review by Tim Richardson

Tim Richardson

A Few Trowels Short of a Shed

English Garden Eccentrics: Three Hundred Years of Extraordinary Groves, Burrowings, Mountains and Menageries

By

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This chunkily entertaining compendium of twenty-one stories could easily have been expanded into a sixty-volume encyclopedia, since all garden making is on one level a doomed act of folly and all garden makers therefore eccentrics. One of the strengths of this book is that Todd Longstaffe-Gowan, who is a well-respected garden historian and not a ‘generalist’ dipping his toe into the pond, has chosen garden makers who are mostly lesser known and in some cases virtually unknown. This is also an exceptionally well-made book, printed on thick paper, with strongly inked illustrations finely designed by Robert Dalrymple of Edinburgh.

I had never heard of the singular Joshua Brookes, an anatomist who from the 1780s refashioned fragments of the Rock of Gibraltar into a ‘vivarium’ attraction, ‘inhabited by an Eagle and several smaller rapacious Birds’, in his back garden near Oxford Circus. Respected but undeniably eccentric, Brookes was not renowned for his personal hygiene, with one contemporary describing him as ‘without exception the dirtiest professional person I have ever met with ... all and every part of him was dirt’. A gazetteer at the end of the book tells us that the site of Brookes’s garden on Ramillies Street is now, ironically, occupied by the London College of Beauty Therapy.

Gardening is an inherently eccentric activity because it is inexorably bound up with failure. This is perhaps one of the reasons why the English love gardening – the lure of the ‘humble-boast’. The author admits to sidestepping the question as to whether there is something specifically English about garden

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