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English Eccentrics

English Garden Eccentrics by Todd Longstaffe-Gowan – book review

Advolly Richmond, researcher in garden history, reviews English Eccentrics: Three hundred years of extraordinary groves, burrowings, mountains and menageries for Gardens Illustrated

Our review

An entertaining account of eccentric garden makers who created intensely personal gardens between the early 17th and 20th centuries.

English Garden Eccentrics: Three Hundred Years of Extraordinary Groves, Burrowings, Mountains
and Menageries
by Todd Longstaffe-Gowan
Yale University Press, £30
ISBN 978-1913107260

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Who would you bequeath your gold pheasants, blue macaw and ‘other feathered prisoners’ to? A dilemma faced by Lady Reade whose ‘avian zeal’ and remarkable garden made her a reluctant celebrity.

In English Garden Eccentrics, landscape architect and historian Todd Longstaffe-Gowan introduces the reader to a cast of unconventional characters with their individual passions and yes, their obsessions. The author delights us with the surprising tales behind the 20 or so individuals who from the early 17th century through to the beginning of the 20th century fashioned a range of unusual gardens. In many cases their endeavours were born out of personal misfortune, afflictions, scandals and undisguised curiosity.

I was acquainted with some of the stories, but the attention to detail and remarkable images brought a new perspective to familiar accounts. The vivid contemporary visitor accounts brought the people, gardens and their idiosyncrasies to life. Each vignette explores a garden and their designers. We are introduced to people driven by many emotions, the ‘Mole Duke’ at Harcourt House and his compulsive excavation of garden tunnels in search of privacy.

At Elvaston Castle, Charles Stanhope, 4th Earl of Harrington, was besotted with his young bride, and created a shrine to their undying love through a series of romantic but extraordinary gardens full of incredible topiary. The curious beauty of the gardens remained a secret until his death. The stories are amusing, at times tinged with sadness but always informative and very entertaining.

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Each chapter is to be savoured, because these gardens ‘functioned as a form of biography’ with each personality revealing themselves through their creativity. The poignant current status of each site in the conclusion confirms the obvious transience of their creations, which were so lovingly curated. I loved this book; I want to invite them all to take tea with me.