A Natural History of English Gardening 1650–1800
by Mark Laird
2015 Yale Unversity Press, 438 pages
ISBN 978 0 300 19636 8
RRP £45 (but now widely available at a discounted price)
This is a remarkable book. It is weighty in size and content, but so engagingly written and so beautifully illustrated that it cannot fail to delight the reader. Every page is sumptuously adorned with engravings by Ehret, Kick, Marshall and Curtis and numerous images of botanical collages by Mrs Delany. Laird has taken a handful of disparate topics such as John Evelyn, Mary Delany, climate change, Thomas Robins, natural history, and the legacy of William Curtis and he has used his detailed knowledge of the writings of the naturalist Gilbert White of Selborne as the thread that binds them. Above all some of the most important eighteenth-century amateur botanisers and garden naturalists are given recognition and, for the most part, they are women. In particular, a trio of widows are raised from the virtual irrelevancy in which they languished in the eighteenth century: Mary Somerset, the dowager duchess of Beaufort, Mrs Mary Delany and Margaret Cavendish, the dowager duchess of Portland. The pioneering contribution made by these ladies to research and recording of new species is given its rightful place in the history of eighteenth-century horticulture. As Laird relates with gusto the achievements of these ladies, we are led into a world of colour and scent, humming with insects, butterflies and small birds: we can smell the putrefying flesh of the fungus Phallis impudicus and swipe away the buzzing wasp. Laird even offers a reinterpretation of some well-known eighteenth-century paintings in the light of his analysis of the extreme weather of the times: for example in Richard Wilson, Kew Gardens the Pagoda and Bridge painted in 1762, we see how low the water lies in the lake and how parched are the lawns.
This is a masterly opus but while Laird is scholarly and his research is painstakingly referenced, he has a light touch leaving the reader with a greater understanding of the achievements of the amateur naturalists of the period and an affection for Tony, Mrs Delany’s bullfinch and Timothy, Gilbert White’s tortoise.