Australian Garden History – July/August/September 2013

August 23rd 2013

At the coalface: garden history heritage conservation and interpretation

The Garden History Society, established in Britain in 1966, is currently consolidating fruitful links with kindred organisations, providing a useful model for co-operative partnerships.

From where I sit, as Chairman of the Garden History Society and a long-time enthusiast for the conservation of gardens and landscapes, I feel that our shared interests are on the cusp of change. But firstly, as GHS Chairman, I am the lucky one who gets to see our complementary copy of Australian Garden History and the Australian Garden History Society should be congratulated for its journal, which I really look forward to reading, even though I have not visited Australia and most of the place names are alien to me. (My two favourite editions—for their covers alone—are the ones showing the rotating clothes driers and the tyre swan. The latter is in the queue for framing and if anyone would like to send me the real thing I would be a happy recipient.)

Before musing on the state of garden history I should explain that I am not a historian but am very passionate about historic gardens and fascinated by the mechanics of a small voluntary organisation such as the GHS—and by extension, sister organisations such as the AGHS—and how we can harness the energies, enthusiasms, and knowledge of our members to make sure that historic gardens get the best possible deal. I believe that it is a huge waste of energy for small organisations to be political internally and hope that the GHS concentrates on the issues at hand rather than individual egos. Now that there is so much information available on the internet it seems less relevant to be over-protective of individual academic study and I am proud that our internationally recognised journal Garden History is now available in digital format on JSTOR after two years from publication.

This is not to deny that there continue to be revelatory and beautiful publications on garden history. I have to cite, in particular The Garden of Ideas (2010), which is meticulously researched, but accessible and one of the most spectacularly illustrated books on garden history I have seen. If I had to pick my favourite illustration it would be Adelaide’s Prospect House in the late 1840s (pp.96-97), for opening my eyes to the absurdity of creating a picky British Regency pattern of beds in the middle of a desert! My former student Caroline Grant also sent a copy of Cape Arid (2012) illustrated by Phillipa and Alex Nikulinsky; what a stunning work—much greater than Marianne North and making me want to give up trying to draw anything!

But what of the state of garden history in the United Kingdom? Because of the political separation of Wales and Northern Ireland, active involvement of the GHS in conservation concentrates on England and Scotland. The national body, English Heritage, makes grant aid available to the GHS and several other ‘amenity societies’ to deal with responses to planning casework—applications for development and change that may affect historic parks and gardens. English Heritage does not have the resources in house to make such responses and is following a central government agenda to work ‘locally’, with local people and, especially, volunteers.

The GHS works with fellow umbrella body, the Association of Gardens Trusts (that represents some 35 county groups throughout England) to encourage and provide training for the local groups. The grant aid does not cover the full cost of employing qualified professionals to respond to planning casework—the remainder of the funds are found through membership subscriptions and activities—and with a dropping membership due largely to austerity and ageing the GHS has to be ever more careful with the housekeeping. Our public face needs to respond to new ways of communicating so that we appeal to a younger audience.

Aside from the role of the GHS to keep an eye out for the protection and conservation gardens it is encouraging to consider the huge input of funding for parks and gardens that has been generated by the National Lottery (via the Heritage Lottery Fund). Local authorities and charitable organisations may apply for funds to plan conservation and refurbishment, usually requiring professional input. Tens of millions of pounds has been spent on parks and gardens since the Lottery started. The programme is intended to increase involvement by local people and has seen the evolution of friends groups, community hubs, and a generally raised awareness that there is such a thing as a historic park.

The National Trust talks about conservation as ‘managing the process of change’ (such as decay, new car parks, wear and tear) and that it needs to happen in a way that is sensitive to the property. As a volunteer on its Parks and Gardens Advisory Panel it is surprising how often we need to gently point out the extraordinary qualities of the gardens which Trust staff manage. There is always a push, especially among younger staff, to imprint their own ideas and to break out in to new ground, usually meaning less time to garden the garden that is significant! Overall though the National Trust has ‘modernised’ dramatically and continues to seek ways of appealing to a wider and more diverse membership. The organisation is currently trialing partnerships working in the inner city parts of London and Manchester—being acutely aware of its lack of visibility within towns and cities—and is looking for opportunities to engage with partnering local groups, regeneration teams, and the like.

English Heritage has, if anything, dumbed down its offer. What was once the bastion of serious academic understanding and conservation has turned into a commercial organisation desperate to be an attraction—re-enacting battles, creating `Olde English Fayres’, and this year at Bolsover showing Lipizzaner horses riding in the indoor riding school. The organisation still provides excellent guidance and support, and maintains rigour in responding to the planning process, but its public face tends not to shout about these activities.

The Garden History Society has also seen some success in campaign work—following a study day at a modernist water garden (Geoffrey Jellicoe designed gardens in the centre of post-war New Town, Hemel Hempstead), we managed to get front pages on several local newspapers describing the sadly neglected state of this exquisite site followed by two pages in The Times. The result is that the local authority has received funding to prepare a conservation management plan.

How do we know what we want to save? I think the statutory English Heritage Register of Parks and Gardens—now identifying over 1600 places— is an amazing resource and one that continues to serve us well. There is comprehensive coverage of the country, additions continue to be made, the process of adding a site is rigorous and ‘peer tested’ (and I don’t mean by the House of Lords), and the gradings of significance and extent of designation are usually remarkably fair and accurate. A very helpful companion to the Register is Ray Desmond’s Bibliography of British and Irish Gardens (1984). Although in need of updating it is still a brilliant treasure trove. The website of Parks & Gardens UK extends the coverage of sites using research done in individual counties by volunteers in the County Gardens Trusts this is a work in progress and is increasingly useful as it is more and more populated. And there is also The Historic Gardens of England series by Tim Mowl (and his colleagues). I would say the series might be compared to Pevsner’s celebrated Buildings of England—a single point of view that is fresh, lively, and good to use alongside the strictly factual, but perhaps more dry sources. The fact that Tim makes sure he walks the sites and weaves in stories of contemporary influences (including the economy, politics, and people) is part of its charm.

Thinking of this creative interpretation, the Garden Museum has been transformed by the energetic and knowledgeable director Christopher Woodward— turning the institution around and putting on a programme of activities, lectures, and exhibitions that regularly get into the national press as ‘things to do’ in London. He oversaw the physical conversion from decaying, deconsecrated church to a light, modem, buzzing hub of the garden history world. The next stage of transformation will see new spaces built and the possibility of a new home for the Garden History Society.

But despite these gains, the view from my armchair is not universally brilliant. There are still plenty of threats to parks and gardens, but the overall state of awareness and of individuals and organisations willing to stand up for this fantastic resource is different from twenty years ago. There are, I believe, now far more people across the country who understand that garden history is an area of interest and that it is important and even entertaining to understand these places so they do not disappear. Unfortunately the people who ‘get it’ are generally amateur enthusiasts and there is still a dismal lack of understanding of garden history and conservation within local authorities and among professionals such as landscape architects, architects, and planners. Garden history to them is still seen as ‘fuddy duddy’ and for ladies of a certain age. We need to turn this perception around.

Landscape architect Dominic Cole worked with Land Use Consultants for almost three decades until 2012 when he established his own practice. With one short interregnum, he has been Chairman of the Garden History Society since 2001 and also chairs the National Trust’s Parks and Gardens Advisory Panel. His projects include interpretation work with Tim Smit at Heligan and master planning for the Eden Project.