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Books and Book Reviews

An occasional selection of books, some reviewed in the MGS journal, which were chosen by the local Branch when preparing for an Annual General Meeting to be held in their area.

You will find another list of books written by MGS members by clicking here.

These books were recommended reading before the 2017 AGM held in Pasadena, California.

Southern California
Landscape Plants for California Gardens, by Robert Perry, Land Design Publishing, 2010

Desert Gardens by Gary Lyons, Rizzoli Publications, 2000

Sun-Drenched Gardens: The Mediterranean Style, by Jan Smithen, Harry N. Adams, 2002. Reviewed in TMG No. 31, January 2003

The California landscape: Garden Ecology Culture and Design, by Mark Francis and Andreas Riemann, University of California Press, 1999

Power of Gardens by Nancy Goslee Power, Stuart Tabori and Chang, 2009

The Gardens of California: Four Centuries of Design from Mission to Modern by Nancy Goslee Power, Hennessey & Ingalls, 1995

California Gardens: Creating a New Eden by David C. Streatfield, Abbeville Press Publishers, 1994

Estate Gardens of California by Melba Levick, Rizzoli Publications, 2002

Santa Barbara – Montecito
Montecito, California’s Garden Paradise, by Elizabeth Vogt, MIP Publishing, 1993

Other books about California which have been reviewed in The Mediterranean Garden

The Garden Lover’s Guide to the West, by Kathleen McCormick, Princeton Architectural Press; 2000, TMG No. 28, April 2002

California Native Plants for the Garden, by Carol Bornstein, David Fross & Bart O’Brien, Cachuma Press, 2005, TMG No. 43, January 2006

Native Treasures, by M. Nevin Smith, University of California Press 2006, TMG No. 45, July 2006

Fire in California’s Ecosystems, by Neil Sugihara et al, University of California Press 2006, TMG No. 49, July 2007

Houses of Los Angeles, 1920 – 1935, by Sam Watters, Acanthus Press 2007, TMG No. 50, October 2007

Trees of the California Landscape: A Photographic Manual of Native and Ornamental Trees, by Charles S. Hatch, University of California Press, 2007, TMG No. 51, January 2008

Trees of Santa Barbara, by Robert Muller et al, Santa Barbara Botanic Garden, 2005, TMG No. 52, April 2008

California Gardener’s Guide, by Nan Sterman, Cool Springs Press 2007, TMG No. 53, July 2008

Care & Maintenance of Southern California Native Plant Gardens, by Bart O’Brien et al, California Native Plant Society 2006, TMG No. 69, July 2012

These books were recommended reading before the 2016 AGM held in Athens, Greece


Garden Lore of Ancient Athens by Dorothy B. Thompson & Ralph E. Griswold Published by: American School of Classical Studies at Athens, Series: Agora Picture Books (one of an excellent series usually on sale at the Ancient Agora). It is available online.

Wild Flowers of Attica by Shirley Clifford Atchley, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1938. Out of print but available from AbeBooks.  
In his article about three men associated with the flora of Greece in The Mediterranean Garden No. 50, John Rendall gives a brief biography of Shirley Atchley and mentions that a copy of this book was donated to the MGS library by member Cynthia Hill whose uncle was a friend of Atchley. Members can consult the copy on their visit to the MGS garden at Sparoza.

Greek Wild Flowers and Plant Lore in Ancient Greece, by Hellmut Baumann, Herbert Press Ltd., 1993, available used from Amazon.

The Parthenon by Mary Beard, Profile Books, 2010


Prospero’s Cell by Lawrence Durrell, Faber & Faber, 2000

My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell, Puffin 2006
There is now a one-volume trilogy that adds his other two later Corfu books under the title Corfu Trilogy (Penguin).

Autumn Gleanings: Corfu Memoirs & Poems, Durrell School of Corfu.
Theo Stephanides, described so delightfully by Durrell in My Family and Other Animals, is the posthumous author and subject of this fairly recently published collection.

Edward Lear, the Corfu Years: A Chronicle Presented Through His Letters and Journals, introduced and edited by Philip Sherrard, Denise Harvey Publisher, 1988.
MGS member Denise Harvey also publishes the book by Jaqueline Tyrwhitt Making a Garden on a Greek Hillside.

Prospero’s Kitchen. Mediterranean Cooking of the Ionian Islands, by Diana Farr Louis and June Marinos, published by I. B. Tauris, 2012.
Diana is an MGS member and former co-Branch Head in Greece.

These books were recommended reading before the 2015 AGM held in Ischia, Italy

La Mortella: An Italian Garden Paradise, by Susana Walton, published by New Holland, 2003.
La Mortella is the spectacular subtropical and mediterranean garden developed since 1956 by the late Susana Walton, the Argentinian wife of the British composer Sir William Walton. Designed by landscape architect Russell Page, La Mortella is acclaimed as one of the most beautiful gardens in Italy.

The Story of San Michele, by Axel Munthe, published by John Murray, 2004.
Axel Munthe (1857–1949) was a Swedish-born physician and psychiatrist who spent much of his life on the island of Capri where he built the Villa San Michele. He was an animal lover and bought land to create a bird sanctuary on mount Barbarossa. He is best known as the author of The Story of San Michele, an autobiographical account of his life and work.

Siren Land: A Celebration of Life in Southern Italy (1911), by Norman Douglas, published by Tauris Parke Paperbacks, 2010.
Norman Douglas (1868– 1952) lived in the Villa Daphne, Capri.
Also by Norman Douglas:
Alone (Italy) (1921) (Dodo Press) Paperback, December 21, 2007.
Old Calabria (1915) Paperback, April 15, 2007.
South Wind (1917) novel.

Pompeii, by Robert Harris, published by Arrow Books, 2009.
A novel with a young Roman hydraulic engineer as its hero, set in and around Pompeii just before and during the explosion of Vesuvius in AD 79.

Pompeii: The Life of a Roman Town, by Mary Beard, published by Profile Books, 2008.

The Land Where Lemons Grow: The Story of Italy and its Citrus Fruit, by Helena Attlee, published by Penguin Paperbacks, 2015.

Italian Gardens, by Helena Attlee, published by Frances Lincoln, 2006.

Ninfa: The Most Romantic Garden in the World, by Charles Quest-Ritson, published by Frances Lincoln, 2009.

Gardens of the Roman World, by Patrick Bowe, published by J. Paul Getty Museum, 2004.

Ancient Roman Gardens, by Linda Farrar, published by Sutton Publishing, revised edition 2000.

The Popes: A History, by John Julius Norwich, published in paperback by Vintage, 2012.

The Families Who Made Rome: A History and a Guide, by Anthony Majanlahti, published in paperback by Random House UK, 2006.

The books recommended for the 2014 AGM held in Menton, France

Mediterranean Gardens: A Model for Good Living, by Louisa Jones
Bloomings Books, 2013, ISBN 978-0992290092.

The author will talk on the subject of her book after the General Assembly.
Reprint of review from TMG 74

Nicole de Vésian – Gardens. Modern Design in Provence, by Louisa Jones
Photography by Clive Nichols, Louisa Jones and Vincent Motte
Actes Sud, 2011. ISBN 978-2742-797349.

A portrait of the creator of the garden of La Louve, to be visited during the pre-AGM tour, and an account of her ‘art of gardening’.
Reprint of review from TMG 66

Serre de la Madone. Lawrence Johnston’s Garden on the French Riviera, by Louisa Jones
Conservatoire du Littoral Series, Actes Sud/Dexia Editions, 2003. ISBN 2-7427-4438-X. Paperback, 50 pp., 10 x 19cm.
Reprint of review from TMG 49

La Mortola: In the Footsteps of Thomas Hanbury, by Alasdair Moore
Cadogan Guides, 2004. ISBN 1-8601-11408. Distributed in North America by The Globe Pequot Press.
Reprint of review from TMG 40

The Dry Gardening Handbook: Plants and Practices for a Changing Climate, by Olivier Filippi
Thames & Hudson, 2008. ISBN: 0500514070

Filippi’s nursery and demonstration garden in Mèze will be visited during the pre-AGM tour. This book was reviewed in TMG 54

Perfume from Provence, by Lady Fortescue
First published by William Blackwood & Sons Ltd in 1935, reissued in an American edition in 1993 by Hearst Books, New York. ISBN-10 0-688-12582-4.

About restoring a house and making a garden in Provence.

Riviera Nature Notes, by C.C.
First published in 1903. New edition edited by Rob Cassy, Lost and Found Classic Travel Writing, Signal Books Limited, Oxford, 2004. ISBN 1-902669-82-7 cloth-bound; 1-902669-83-5 paperback.

A book by the mysterious C. C. dedicated to Sir Thomas Hanbury.
Reprint of review from TMG 40

Complete Mediterranean Wildlife, by Paul Sterry
 HarperCollins, 2000. ISBN: 9780002201612

Novels with a connection

The Long Afternoon, by Giles Waterfield
Headline Review 2001. ISBN-10: 0747268487

A novel about Le Clos du Peyronnet, to be visited on the Optional Days Garden Visits.

Voices in the Garden, by Dirk Bogarde,
Triad Granada, 1983

The Last Life, by Clair Messud
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2000

Insight Guides: Provence & the French Riviera, by Insight Guides
6th Edition 2014. ISBN: 9781780052397

Cadogan Guide Côte d'Azur by Dana Facaros & Michael Pauls   
Cadogan Guides 2009. ISBN-10: 1566567610

Good on history, architecture, art, culture etc but much less so on things like shops and bars.

In French
Le domaine du Rayol, by Hervé Lenain, Caroline Petit & Stanislas Alaguillaume
Les Editions Eugen Ulmer, 2011. ISBN 978-2841384972.

Jardins de garrigue, by Véronique Mure
Edisud, 2007. ISBN 978-2-7449-0695-4.

Alternatives au gazon, by Olivier Filippi
Actes Sud, 2011. ISBN 978-2-7427-9891-9.

Reviewed in TMG

Mediterranean Gardens: A Model for Good Living
by Louisa Jones
Bloomings Books, 2013, ISBN 978-0992290092.

This book is a distillation, from years of experience and deep thought, of Louisa Jones’ reflections on the traditional gardens of the Mediterranean in all their forms. It is in a sense a manifesto – and indeed the title of the original French edition of the book is Manifeste pour les jardins méditerranéens.

One of the subheadings in Jones’ first chapter (on ‘What is Mediterranean Gardening?’) is ‘A Moving Mosaic’. This is wonderfully apt. This book could itself be considered as a mosaic of perceptions; more pertinently, ‘mosaic’ is a good description not only of the geological fragmentation of the lands surrounding the Mediterranean Sea – mountains, valleys, hills, plains and islands, each with its own particular microclimate – but also of its history, with successive generations cultivating and nurturing their patches of land over millennia. There is no place for the more northern contrast between ‘man’ and ‘wilderness’. On the contrary, “there is probably no square metre of the Mediterranean basin that has not been directly and repeatedly manipulated […] by man” (quoted from The Mediterranean Basin – biological diversity in space and time by Aronson, Blondel, Bodiou and Boeuf). The word ‘moving’ in the subheading means of course ‘shifting, changing, evolving’, yet it could also be taken to indicate an emotional involvement in these landscapes. Personally I found very moving Jean Giono’s account, quoted by Jones, of discovering on a hillside deep in the back country a whole park of wild box trimmed into arches around a labyrinth, created by a road mender for his own solitary pleasure.

Mediterranean gardening, as Louisa Jones explains, “is a way of living in harmony with the earth without contrived effects or heavy spending”, frugal and fruitful, and easily adaptable to today’s ecological awareness. It is born of and perpetuates “a long-standing partnership between human beings and their environment, tested in Mediterranean countries for millennia”. This book is not prescriptive. Jones notes that even ancient civilisations had their ‘show gardens’ affirming power and prestige, and remarks perceptively that their modern equivalents in the Mediterranean encourage enlightened patronage and foster the creative talents of landscape architects and garden designers; she has an interesting section too on the similarities and dissimilarities between Mediterranean and Japanese gardens. However, the ‘good living’ of the English title indicates that Mediterranean gardens are not focused on ‘show’ or display.

Many of those who move from more northern countries to live in southern Europe, accustomed to a tradition of lawns and herbaceous borders, find it hard at first to recognise or understand the porous boundaries between productive and ornamental gardening in the vernacular Mediterranean tradition. In part, this tradition is simply practical: people have to eat, fruit and vegetables are a necessity, water is a scarce resource. But this of course is only a part of it, and Jones cites John Dixon Hunt’s comment that “the term ‘productive gardens’ is not entirely a happy label, above all because it posits a distinction between utility and pleasure or even beauty that is largely a modern one”. Her book is a manifesto for the sensuality of the Mediterranean garden. The sun, the shade, the scents, the sounds, the tastes, the colours, the textures – all these combine into an overall experience of pleasure and ‘good living’. It is significant that Jones uses the example of Mediterranean cuisine as an image of the way various elements (ingredients) are combined in different ways, so that a strong local flavour coexists with a more general way of life.

She is particularly good on what she calls ‘the logic of place’. The siting of houses just below the crest of (rather than on the summit of) hills, the planting of windbreaks, the planting of tall deciduous trees in front of the house to provide cooling shade in summer while letting the light in in winter, the terracing of hillsides practised since at least the Bronze Age, the collection, storage and distribution of water, the progression from house to garden to landscape (and ways of handling it) – all this and more is discussed as Jones examines the way in which Mediterranean gardens have for so long been intimately connected to their place and its specific conditions. I was delighted, incidentally, to read her robust statement that “nothing is more nonsensical than olive trees or lavender planted in lawn” since I’ve been hoping for some time that this jarring fashion for combining the logically incompatible – dry-climate plants and a temperate-climate watered lawn – will rapidly fall into abeyance.

Louisa Jones wears her erudition lightly. This relatively short book is full of fascinating bits of historical information. (Did you know, for example, that silica was extracted from wheat stalks to sharpen knives in Syria seven thousand years ago? I didn’t.) Each section, moreover, ends with a delightfully apposite literary quotation, and their range is wide: from the roman Columella to W.H. Auden and Lawrence Durrell, from Keats to Colette, Marcel Pagnol and Jean Giono…

However, although Jones tells us about the past, her book focuses on the present and future, for the uses of land that constitute Mediterranean gardening lie on a continuum. She sees no conflict between local and global solutions. She cites the Slow Food movement; she considers the place of agrotourism and niche market gardening in counteracting the increasing homogenisation of our culture. Her ‘Mediterranean garden’ is nothing if not adaptable – “Our species uses the resources of the environment just as birds build nests”.

It is impossible in a short review to give more than a brief whiff of this thoughtful book’s flavour. I thoroughly recommend it to anyone who loves life and enjoys gardens.
Caroline Harbouri
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Nicole de Vésian – Gardens. Modern Design in Provence
By Louisa Jones
Photography by Clive Nichols, Louisa Jones and Vincent Motte
Actes Sud, 2011, ISBN 978-2742-797349.
155 pages, €33.

Louisa Jones has lived and gardened in southern France since 1975. A prolific author, long-standing MGS member and regular contributor to this journal, she has published numerous books on contemporary French and Mediterranean gardens. This, which I believe must be her 40th book, is a gem. Her subject is Nicole de Vésian and the gardens that she created in the last decade of her life, but most notably what many consider to be her masterpiece: La Louve, a property in Bonnieux named after the last she-wolf of the region, supposedly killed there in 1957.

I had the pleasure of visiting this visionary creation with Louisa Jones last autumn and like, I imagine, pretty much everyone else who has been there, found it to be a moving and inspirational experience. It was late afternoon on a mid-November day and the garden was bathed in the luminous glow of the setting sun, giving it an almost dream-like quality.

The first part of this book is essentially a portrait of Nicole de Vésian, with a brief history of her life and work, and a reflection on the qualities that make her work cherished by so many, even long after her death. She began to garden seriously at the age of 70 – this surely gives hope to anyone who thinks they have left it too late to follow their true vocation. She was known for her independence of spirit and the simplicity and practicality of her ideas; the purity of form and fabric that would later infuse her gardens is evident throughout her outstanding career as a stylist in Paris and New York.

She worked only in natural materials: stone, linen, leather and wood. Nicole was always practical, preferring, for example, “hammered pewter to silver, mohair, which she found lighter to wear, than cashmere”.  Her assistant at one time was the later-to-become-famous Christian Lacroix. He writes the preface to Louisa Jones’ book, peppered with delightful anecdotes which give us further insight into Nicole’s character: “She used to arrive in the morning in her tiny car of the best green, loaded with canvas bags of her own design, dressed in a beige cashmere sweater (the motto of Elsie de Wolfe ‘beige is my colour’ might have been hers, she went as far as only writing in pale brown felt pen). This with a soft leather, vanilla-coloured skirt, just one or two Scandinavian jewels, abstractions in silver or gold, her white chignon impeccably drawn back to set off her tanned and weathered face with invisible make-up”. There are a few photographs in the book showing her to be a very handsome, elegant woman, completely without pretention. In the steady gaze of this clear-eyed, open face one senses the free-spirited and tough character that many friends attest to.

Many also recount that de Vésian became even simpler in taste with age. She wore only natural fabrics – linen, cotton, leather – whose useful life she prolonged with her liberal use of darned patches. For she was not only concerned with making the practical look beautiful – she was also a great recycler, a habit she learnt during the war. She was forever finding new uses for throw-outs; most memorably Louisa Jones tells how she used “bits of ostrich skin from the Hermès discard bins to line her crutches for greater comfort.”

Nicole de Vésian gardened when she could during her days as a stylist, but she didn’t have as much time as she would have liked to devote to it. She had a long association with the Luberon through family connections, however, and as she neared retirement she searched for a haven to make her own. She bought La Louve, then a ruin, in 1986, and began the work of restoration, finally having the time to garden. Yet she did not have abundant funds to hand and thus used her wits, as she had done throughout her life, to help her in her creation. The flat-topped cypresses, for example, which became a leitmotif of Nicole’s, have their origins in thrift: she rescued them from the rubbish heap of a nursery whose stock had been frost-burnt.
So began the process that was to see her create this unique and brilliant garden, which, as journalist Tania Compton noted, “seems to spring so naturally from the earth beneath you whilst keeping you aware of the art, labour and love that has created it”. 

The second part of the book, the longest, is an account of Nicole’s “art of gardening” and her inspiration. The text becomes more sparing (right-hand page only) and the exquisite photographs by Clive Nichols, Vincent Motte and Louisa herself do much of the talking. However, what text there is, is highly insightful. Here we learn how Nicole de Vésian approached design: “I never measure, I never draw”. She kept clippings of images that she liked but each of her designs emerged from close observation of the actual site and was inspired by the character of each place. She would look for a striking feature in the surrounding hillsides and use it as the basis for imaginary lines to establish the garden’s structure. As Tania Compton is quoted: “The garden is really a homage to these hills. Nicole follows their contours in her clipping and echoes their colours in her restricted palette”.

As with her earlier work in styling, she kept her raw materials simple and focused on the beauty of form, foliage, textures and subtle colour. Balance and harmony were all. She loved to treat practical objects as works of art, and by all accounts adored stones. So much so in fact that on her first visit to La Louve she did not even go inside the house, so taken was she by the natural treasures to be found in the garden. 

Nicole not only had an eye for the overall picture; Louisa recounts how she would stand over workmen getting them to change the placement of a stone or the line of a walkway again and again until she felt it was right. She was constantly seeking real beauty, a trait that might drive some workmen to distraction. Yet a client recalls, “For her they did it gladly, happy to be learning to see through her eyes”.

Nicole’s planting palettes generally focused on ever-green or ever-grey natives, fragrant plants that clip well such as box, bay, laurustinus, lentisk, cypress, lavender, santolina and rosemary etc. Her objective, however, was not to control but rather to allow each individual plant to keep its own character. “Nature shapes the plants into mounds already, I just help them along”. She encouraged the garden to evolve, in volume, texture and colour; she never wanted it to be static. Though she loved to trim, believing plants really benefited from it (as indeed I do), she was also happy for a plant to self-seed, giving the garden a delightful spontaneity that it might otherwise have lacked. The sensual enjoyment of plants was also important to her – she loved to place scented plants where people could pass close enough to touch them, releasing their evocative aromas.

The third and shortest part of the book is devoted to a somewhat ad hoc collection of testimonials from friends and colleagues, as well as Nicole’s Top Ten Tips, every one of which seems perfectly obvious… as soon as you read it. French nurseryman Jean-Marie Rey gives some details of the trees, climbers and shrubs found in the garden, a small bonus for plants-people looking for this kind of detail.

Louisa Jones met Nicole de Vésian in 1989 when she was researching for an earlier book, Gardens in Provence. All the reviews of that book singled out La Louve, and so it was that it began to be known; people started to ask Nicole for help with their own gardens. She only ever agreed on the conditions that she could make believe it was her own garden, and that everything surrounding the garden was taken into account. Some of those gardens are also referred to and illustrated in this book.

Nicole died at the age of 80 as she was in the process of buying a property where she intended to make a new garden on flat land. She had wanted to experiment with her new sense of Japanese gardening, but there was not time.

At first glance one might think that Nicole de Vésian – Gardens is another beautiful coffee table book. How wrong one would be: it is much more, painting as it does a delightful vignette of this highly individual woman who fearlessly created gardens of great harmony and beauty in her latter years. It certainly left me feeling inspired and wishing that I had met her.
Jennifer Gay
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Serre de la Madone. Lawrence Johnston’s Garden on the French Riviera
By Louisa Jones
Conservatoire du Littoral Series, Actes Sud/Dexia Editions, 2003. ISBN 2-7427-4438-X. Paperback, 50 pp., 10 x 19cm.

This little book was published in 2003 yet somehow escaped mention in the pages of this journal – an oversight which I feel needs rectifying. Its small format (of which more later) is deceptive; the book is not a mere guide to the garden of Serre de la Madone but rather a serious account of its history and of its current restoration under the auspices of the Conservatoire du Littoral. Naturally the history of a garden made on the French Riviera by an Englishman (albeit naturalised) is intimately linked to the more general history of the English presence in this region during the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries and of the garden fashions that prevailed. For visitors from northern Europe, the frost-free climate of Menton, Nice and Cannes made these towns a delight, as well of course as an ideal wintering place for consumptives. Louisa Jones cites literary sources ranging from Smollett to Maupassant (and provides full references in her notes at the end of the book). The French Riviera, she tells us, “seemed a paradise promising fulfilment of extravagant desires, including some unacceptable to prevailing moral standards. It was, as W. Somerset Maugham put it so succinctly, ‘a sunny place for shady people’.”

Lawrence Johnston arrived on the French Riviera in 1924, the year that Alice Martineau published Gardening in Sunny Lands. Louisa Jones describes the influence of William Robinson and Gertrude Jekyll on Riviera gardens, but also the synthesis of the “wild garden” with more formal Mediterranean traditions in, for example, the work of Harold Peto, Jean-Claude Nicolas Forestier and Octave Godard. The palm tree was no doubt a symbol of exoticism to northern eyes, but what Martineau was suggesting was the kind of garden in which “The cypresses of the country replace the foreign palm; and great masses of rock plants, flowering shrubs, mimosa (acacia) and climbing plants have superseded the elaborate ‘bedding out’ of the old school.”

An account of Lawrence Johnston’s life is followed by a detailed discussion of the design and planting of Serre de la Madone and a chapter on “Serre and Hidcote” (if Serre was Johnston’s “winter” garden, then Hidcote in Gloucestershire was his “summer” garden). I’m not quite sure whether I would have appreciated the copy of Michelangelo’s David at Serre, but how tempting the thousands of Tulipa clusiana sound, among double-flowered periwinkles in the four box-enclosed rectangles of a parterre, or the exotic birds, or for that matter the rose-pink flamingos in a shallow pond at Hidcote, among large groups of many kinds of berberis following the undulations of the site, lifted, in Russell Page’s words “onto a higher plane [by] tufts and groups of Yuccas, Y. flaccida, Y. filamentosa and Y. gloriosa”.

After Johnston’s death in 1958 the garden of Serre de la Madone went through various vicissitudes. Many plants, especially perennials, inevitably disappeared, while others were purchased by close friends and can apparently still be seen in surviving Menton gardens. In 1999 the Conservatoire du Littoral succeeded in acquiring the garden and since then a process of restoration has begun, with careful thought as to how to convert this magnificent private garden into a public space. Louisa Jones discusses some of the questions that need to be answered in this sensitive process.

This little book, illustrated with attractive line drawings by Ninon Anger, is thus a rich and thoughtful source of information not only about Lawrence Johnston and Serre de la Madone but also about the context in which this garden was created and about its future. In a recent review (TMG 48) Rory Stuart bewailed the physical difficulties involved in reading large and heavy garden books. What a treat, then, to have a book worth reading that is small enough to fit into a handbag or pocket
Caroline Harbouri
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La Mortola: In the Footsteps of Thomas Hanbury
By Alasdair Moore, Cadogan Guides, 2004, ISBN 1-8601-11408.
Distributed in North America by The Globe Pequot Press.

The publication of this book on the Royal Horticultural Society’s principal benefactor, Sir Thomas Hanbury, was nicely timed to coincide with the RHS’s bicentenary celebrations in 2004.

Alasdair Moore is a Wisley graduate who spent a year at the Abbey Gardens at Tresco in the Scilly Isles, which he describes as ‘a very formative part of my education as a gardener’. After a period of working elsewhere he returned to Tresco, which by then had links with the Hanbury Gardens and he was in the first wave of Tresco personnel to go to La Mortola on a working visit. This arrangement continued for three years, with Carolyn Hanbury generously providing board and lodging for an ever-increasing number of people from Tresco. From these beginnings this book was born.

It is not really a horticultural work but rather a disquisition on the life and times of the Giardini Hanbury’s founder; as such, it gives us an interesting glimpse of 19th-century domestic history.

Sir Thomas Hanbury came of Quaker stock and, therefore, had a proper respect for hard work and its just rewards. As a young man of twenty-one he left for Shanghai where, to cut a long story short, he made his immense fortune before he was thirty-six.

In between times, and unlike most of the other  foreigners in China at that time, he bothered to learn to speak Chinese (though I doubt it was the Mandarin dialect since Shanghai seems a bit too far south for that and moreover has its own well-known and recognised dialect) and also to write it.

There was a copious correspondence between Thomas and his family in England and more particularly with his brother Daniel, who was in fact at that time far more botanically-minded than Thomas. Pharmacy – the family business – in those days depended much more on botanical remedies that present-day medicine and Daniel knew all the great names in botany, such as William Hooker of Kew and Robert Fortune, whom he introduced to Thomas. He was fascinated by Chinese medicine and Thomas nearly always sent some plant or seeds with each of his letters home.

Thomas had hardly been a year in China before his Quaker principles were to be tested. He was expected to join a local defence force consisting of foreigners during the ‘troubles’ in Shanghai and this he steadfastly refused to do.

Life in Shanghai wasn’t all plain sailing for him and he was considered ‘unclubbable’, while for his part he found the endless gargantuan dinners in the intense heat of the city ‘over-indulgent’. On the business side he was the subject of critical letters to England from a partner, William Crampton, citing Thomas’ inability to keep books properly and his antisocial attitude to the other British in Shanghai.

However Dame Fortune was about to smile on Thomas Hanbury. The American Civil War had stopped the supply of cotton to Britain’s mills. Thomas was one of the first to realise that Chinese cotton could be substituted for American. What had been for the domestic market alone was now bought up and exported forthwith. By the end of 1861 cotton was Shanghai’s principal export and three million pounds of cotton had changed hands. Thomas Hanbury now had his working capital to invest in Shanghai property. This he did and continued to do so until he once again left Shanghai in 1866 for England at the age of 34. He was not in the best of health and was searching for a better climate than that of southern England. He also had an idea to marry.

He first saw La Mortola in March 1867 and ‘took a violent fancy’ to Villa Orengo. He promptly bought it and started the long process of restoration. By September he was engaged to be married and by the following August the happy couple were sailing for Shanghai.

The Hanbury Gardens were begun in 1867 and much of the planting was overseen by Thomas’ brother Daniel until the latter’s sudden death in 1875. His contribution to the making of La Mortola was greater in some ways than that of Thomas since, apart from acquiring the various plants, he concerned himself with both the botanical and the pharmacological aspect of everything planted in the gardens. During this time they employed a brilliant but somewhat difficult German head gardener, Ludwig Winter, with whom they maintained a slightly fraught relationship over the years.

Of course, there were tremendous problems over the years with the making of this garden but overall, and particularly since Thomas returned for good from China, the general trend was more than simple progress. The local population also gained from Thomas’ charity, from his building of local elementary schools and hospitals, neither of which had existed before his arrival.

Thomas Hanbury’s personal fortune was made from buying and renting property in Shanghai. He was, after all, the largest landowner in that city with some 1500 houses mostly rented out to Chinese. With that number of tenants it was an immense task to keep a check of their various activities. Opium dens were common in Shanghai and many of them were rented from Sir Thomas. In the circumstances it was unfortunate that he should be a founding member and on the committee of the Anglo-Oriental Society for the Suppression of the Opium Trade and that what was generally known as the “Hanbury Quarter” of Shanghai was seething with opium dens. When he caused a survey of his property portfolio to be made it showed that both opium dens and brothels were on the list. Quite a large part of the portfolio was sold, on the basis that sale was easier than persuading sitting tenants to change their profitable occupations. The taint of opium was to arise again a few years later but was proved, after a long drawn out correspondence, to be totally false.

Thomas Hanbury was to spend his remaining years at La Mortola embellishing his garden, performing charitable works, endowing new schools and hospitals, and entertaining friends, relations and even royalty in peace and happiness. He continued what had become a life-long investment programme. There were one or two hiccups, such as the death of his brother and later the death of his natural half-Chinese son, Hoong Aheu, who was given the name Charles Sidney – the fruit of a bitterly regretted Shanghai liaison years before. On his own doorstep there were endless problems with gardeners and servants, one fracas ending in murder.

In 1901 King Edward VII made Thomas Hanbury a K.C.V.O., said to be for his work in China and Italy although it is acknowledged that anything to do with the Victorian Order is in the personal gift of the sovereign.

Sir Thomas, at the instigation of Ellen Willmott, a well-known and very eccentric gardener as well as a near neighbour of his in Italy, offered the Royal Horticultural Society what is now known as Wisley in August 1903. There were senior members, the Director of Kew among them, who felt that the property was too far from London, but as Sir Thomas pithily wrote, ‘Where else within the same distance from London could 60 acres of freehold land be found with admirable soil and an abundant water supply, a garden already made out by an eminent person be secured at the moderate price of five thousand pounds?’ A month later he was awarded the Victoria Medal of Honour and in 1906 the Veitch Memorial Medal.

He died, as all good gardeners do, before his work was finished. To the last he was planning for new introductions such as fruiting trees and plants, new climbers and so on. He knew, better than most, that although a garden can continue more or less for ever it cannot ever be said to be complete. His epitaph could very well be that of Sir Christopher Wren: Si monumentum requiris, circumspice.
Yve Dyson
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Riviera Nature Notes by C.C.
First published in 1903. New edition edited by Rob Cassy, Lost and Found Classic Travel Writing, Signal Books Limited, Oxford, 2004. ISBN 1-902669-82-7 cloth-bound; 1-902669-83-5 paperback.

When I think of my grandfather I can’t help feeling that my own supposedly good mid-twentieth-century education pales beside his thorough late-nineteenth-century one. A mathematician by training, he was equally and easily knowledgeable about music, clouds, stars, Greek mythology, rock formations, medieval history, wildlife or French poetry… “Salamandra salamandra,” he pronounced without hesitation (and perfectly correctly) when we encountered a beautiful black and yellow-spotted amphibian in the Jura… He introduced me to Chekov and Trollope…

Something of the same breadth of knowledge – and, perhaps more importantly, unfailing and unfettered mental curiosity – characterises the mysteriously named C.C., author of Riviera Nature Notes. As Rob Cassy tells us in his introduction, C.C. was the English clergyman and schoolmaster George Edwards Comerford Casey (1845-1912).

Riviera Nature Notes, dedicated to Sir Thomas Hanbury, is not, explains the author, confined to “remarks about the structure and affinities of the different species. For many of the plants which surround us here have an interest other than botanical. They are connected with history, with mythology and with the outward symbolism of religion; they are enshrined in the literatures of Rome and Greece and Palestine, and associated with the progress of mankind. To lose sight of this would be to do scanty justice to the subject.” Thus each subject treated, chapter by chapter, is a starting point for a wide-ranging disquisition; the book progresses from “Date Palm and Chamærops” (how I love this Edwardian diphthong) to “Problems to Solve” via a whole glorious spectrum of Mediterranean subjects: “Lizards”, “Peculiar Plants”, “Sunshine and Shade”, “Wayside Weeds”, to mention but a few. These essays – for this in effect is what they are – may include an aesthetic appreciation (the Globe Thistle, Echinops, is described as “a plant so ornamental that one is surprised it does not attract the attention of artists with its soft blue spheres”), or an economic approach (“It is said that a district planted with Olives will support twenty families for one which could otherwise find subsistence”), or a scientific note (“The Oleander has a whorl of three leaves at many of its nodes or joints: a transverse section of the stem below the node, differentially stained, makes an interesting object for the microscope”). The questions in the final chapter are indicative of the author’s unceasing curiosity: “Of what use, if any, is the Urginea to the Fig”, “Can Jasius larvæ be raised on rose leaves?”, “Has the irrigation by the water of the Vesubia canal appreciably affected the climate of Nice?”, and so on.

Naturally enough, C.C. is deeply familiar with the Bible and, equally naturally, is interested in the plants mentioned therein. “Plants of Palestine” are thus given two chapters, subtitled “Caper and Anemone” and “Storax, Retama, and Acacia”; after all, “Travellers have called attention to the similarity between the Flora of the Riviera and that of Palestine”. To anyone who has ever wondered what the Shittah Tree is, of which the Tabernacle was constructed, C.C. suggests that it may have been Acacia seyal. Moreover, he tells us where the Storax or Styrax may be seen growing on the Riviera, north of Hyères, before adding with a touch of asperity, “It is strange that the Styrax […] should not be cultivated in the gardens of the Riviera. But gardens, like churches and schools and ladies’ costumes, are ruled by fashion, or as some prefer to call it ‘orthodoxy’.” In this respect, not much has changed in the century that has passed since these words were written. However, when C.C. quotes Horace on repose under an arbutus tree and remarks, “Tityrus, as every schoolboy knows, reclined in the shade of a beech tree”, one has to admit that there have indeed been changes – for I’m afraid few schoolboys know this fact today.

What makes Riviera Nature Notes such a delight is not only C.C.’s range of knowledge but, above all, his capacity for minute observation and the sensitivity of his perceptions. Consider this about the defensive thorns of spiny plants: “Though determined to protect themselves, they are not truculent. […] To resist aggression, and yet not become so hardened as to lose all sense of beauty and of harmony, is an ideal rarely attained by vegetables or by men”. Or, of geckos, “even their eyes appear to take the tint of the stone”.

It is tempting to go on quoting and I cannot resist one last example. First comes the flight of fancy (and a dart aimed at the objects of C.C.’s two main prejudices, Roman Catholicism and gambling): “The Aspidistra overhears all the scandals that are whispered in every salon of the Riviera, and sees every coin that you venture on the red or on the black. This long-suffering plant patronises every bazaar and shows no sign of being bored; it is present at every prayer-meeting, and, for aught I know, at the functions of the ritualists. If you call upon a friend, the Aspidistra guards the staircase; and if the cruel Fates compel you to consult your doctor, the leafy sentinel looks callously upon you from the table of the waiting room.” Then follows the serious observation: “I said that this plant has no stem, but if you look closer you will see the stock from which the leaves proceed.”

J’observe et je suis la Nature: / C’est mon secret pour être heureux: these lines of Florian are quoted on the dedication page. C.C. looked closely at everything. The re-issuing of Riviera Nature Notes with Rob Cassy’s introduction and list of books for further reading does us all a great service.
Caroline Harbouri
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