One thing that can, and perhaps should, be said about A Natural History of English Gardening 1650–1800 is that it is a spectacularly beautiful piece of book-making. Its spacious pages are printed on gloriously heavy matt-coated stock, its elegant full-cloth binding features head- and foot-bands, and its hundreds of pictures, mainly in colour, are laid out lavishly and reproduced with brilliance. It is a testament to what can be achieved with a subsidy and a competent Chinese printer. Yale University Press is already famous for producing splendid books; this one will certainly do its reputation no harm.
It would be nice to speak with the same degree of enthusiasm for Mark Laird’s text. While it overflows with fascinating material – anecdotes, quotations from obscure sources, provocative insights – it never quite makes plain what it is driving at. The title, which gives every sign of having been conceived by a marketing department, does not help, since the book is not really a natural history of gardening, or of anything else. (Speaking of marketing, it may be significant that the slightly off-putting ‘1650–1800’ has been omitted from the jacket.) Instead, what we are offered is half a dozen separate studies on subjects ranging from the 17th-century