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Visually Vibrant Gardening Books

By Christoper AndreaeChristopher Andaea, who is based in Great Britain, covers art, literature, and gardening for the Monitor. / March 6, 1992

MOST gardening books tend, by nature, to be picture books. This burgeoning publishing genre is a prime example of the old adage: One picture is worth a thousand words. Brilliant color photographs are the usual medium. Even the most serious studies of gardens, garden history, and gardening practice now require superb full-color plates and splendid design.

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Visually, today's top breed of garden book puts into the shade the garden books of the not-so-distant past. The writing isn't necessarily all that different. The images are. And there are some supremely talented photographers who specialize in the recording and presentation of trees, plants, gardens, and landscape architecture. Rightly, they are often given equal billing with authors.

Take The Gardens of Russell Page by Marina Schinz and Gabrielle van Zuylen (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 255 pp., 250 illustrations, $50). Schinz's photographs, of consistently superb quality and informative as well, are more than equal partner to van Zuylen's sympathetic and thorough text.

Russell Page was a 20th-century, English-born garden designer who had a preference for French order and structure, and an international range of wealthy clients (including van Zuylen) from France and Italy to New York and Fort Worth, Texas. At the close of his long career, he deeply regretted the loss of many of the gardens he had designed. But then he did practice one of the most ephemeral of art forms.

This book, however, managed to capture for perpetuity more than a little of the grand sweep of his vision and his attention to detail - both formal and free. Page was not just a devotee of the parterre and the clipped hedge, the step and the path, but a real lover of abundant plant life, too. He relished trees. He used water imaginatively. He was by no means a drawing-board designer. He worked on site and was quite capable of digging and planting as well as issuing orders. This book makes the quality of his achievements available to a much wider range of people.

What a pity photography of this caliber wasn't available to record some of Gertrude Jekyll's gardens. The gardens planned by this English garden designer (1843 to 1932) - more than 350 of them - have largely vanished. (Some were not carried out.) Russell Page wrote in 1962 that Jekyll's teaching had influenced virtually all English gardens "made in the last fifty years." The "almost habitual association of certain plants," and progressions of color in flower borders, were among her legacies, according to


Extant black-and-white photographs of her gardens are frustratingly limited; her surviving plans are often incomplete. Visualizing how her gardens actually looked is more than difficult. In Lost Gardens of Gertrude Jekyll (Macmillan, 144 pp., more than 65 illustrations, $24.95) author/illustrator Fenja Gunn attempts an evocation of 20 Jekyll gardens by means of watercolors, diagrams, and text. A pleasant idea. But painstaking though her pictures are, they demand powers of interpretation that gardeners an d readers spoiled by modern color photographs may not readily summon. Her palette seems surprisingly inadequate to give much indication of the presumed subtleties of a Jekyll planting - to differentiate between, say, pink roses and pink monardas or to distinguish masses of purple aubrieta from campanula. Jekyll's writings, however, still carry her message most powerfully.

Crosscurrents between painting and garden design are encountered often enough. Jekyll was a painter. Page went to art school. And some great artists also found inspiration and subject matter in gardens: Van Gogh, Emil Nolde, and - especially - Claude Monet. Auguste Renoir, however, does not spring to mind in this respect. He had a garden, it's true. But to make it the theme of an entire book - as photographer/writer Derek Fell does in Renoir's Garden (Simon & Schuster, 120 pp., more than 100 illustration s, $30) - is something of a nonstarter. It's quite a pretty volume, but it fails to bring to life either the Renoir garden or any real meaning the painter may have found in it for his art. This Mediterranean "paradise" was no Giverny. Fell's photographs look rather average in the face of modern competition. Perhaps his subject is partly to blame.