You know a book will be well-researched and handsome when it is written by Jackie Bennett – author of The Writer’s Garden – with images by top garden photographer Andrew Lawson. If it’s published by Frances Lincoln, specialists in garden books, you also expect quality in production and design and this new book on Shakespeare’s Gardens meets all these expectations.
Published in association with the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, it gives an insight into his world through the houses he knew or lived in and their surrounding gardens. There are five Stratford-upon-Avon gardens from different phases of the playwright’s life, as well as those he would have seen when he lived in London. Jackie Bennett wrote much of the book during a writers’ residency provided by the Hosking Houses Trust near Stratford, enabling her to be immersed in the area and to have a quiet place to work.
An early chapter on Shakespeare’s World describes Tudor gardens, those of the royal palaces and the plants that were grown in them. It helps to give background and also shows the two-way relationship with textiles. This is well illustrated by a piece of embroidery on the same page as photographs of knot gardens, showing how both inspired each other.
Then follows chapters on each of the five famous houses and gardens: Shakespeare’s birthplace, Mary Arden’s farm, Anne Hathaway’s cottage, Hall’s Croft and New Place, with descriptions of Shakespeare’s time in London. Each ends with how the garden is now, since these are gardens that have changed over four centuries. I was particularly interested in one of the layers of garden history, that of the design for Anne Hathaway’s cottage by Ellen Willmott in the ’20s. The gardens are brought to life by Andrew Lawson’s beautiful photographs: views through windows, close-ups of flowers, sunlit days, half-mown meadows, fruit ripening on trees.
The chapters are interspersed with double page spreads on plants: herbs, roses, pinks, orchards, snakes’ head fritillaries, primroses, food, enabling fuller descriptions of the use of plants at the time. I did, though, notice one or two errors in captioning the flowers.
The text is sprinkled with appropriate quotes. Sometimes in books I find these irritating but these are so apposite that they add to the meaning of the text rather than distracting from it. Shakespeare’s work is full of garden references: from the gossiping gardeners in Richard II comparing the state of the country to a neglected garden to Ophelia’s grief-laden distribution of herbs.
I found it fascinating and amusing that as recently as the turn of 2000, visitors were venerating the wrong farmhouse, believing Mary Arden, Shakespeare’s mother, to have lived at the prettily timbered Palmer’s Farm. Luckily the adjacent brick-fronted Glebe farm was bought by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust in 1968 to save it from development. Research revealed that this was in fact Mary Arden’s farm. There are descriptions of recently added vegetable plots between the two farmhouses and I would have liked to see a map to help visualise the layout, especially the farms’ relationship to each other. But maybe that’s just because I love to see maps and garden plans in books!
Shakespeare’s Gardens has an attractive layout, with just the right balance of clear space and type to the page, clear text, plenty of historic prints, and a lovely juxtaposition of photographs. Easy to read, yet erudite, it’s a beautiful book that is bound to please both gardeners and people interested in Shakespeare.
‘Shakespeare’s Gardens’ – Jackie Bennett – photographs by Andrew Lawson – published by Frances Lincoln in association with the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust – ISBN 978-0-7112-3726-1 £25 – Frances Lincoln is part of Quarto Publishing Group UK, www.quartoknows.com
Picture Credits: ©all pictures are copyright of publishers. Banner and Middle spread © and credit Andrew Lawson
Our guest reviewer Susie White is a garden writer, lecturer and author, a member of the Garden Media Guild and a Country Diarist for the Guardian. She tweets as @cottagegardener and her website is www.susie-white.co.uk