Earthly paradises: the best of the year’s gardening books

Plant-hunters, fruit-growers and the glories of Rousham and Bodnant are celebrated in Usula Buchan’s round-up

Important historic gardens fall into two main categories: those made by one person, whose vision has been carefully preserved down the years, sometimes for centuries, and those that are altered and developed by succeeding generations. Rousham, in Oxfordshire, is an example of the first and Bodnant, in the Conwy valley in north Wales, the second. Books on both have been published this year.

Francis Hamel is an artist, whose studio is in an old stable close to ‘the big house’ at Rousham, which was built in 1635 by the Dormer family. With the exception of the present owners, Charles and Angela Cottrell-Dormer — whose ancestor, General James Dormer, employed William Kent between 1737 and 1741 to improve on Charles Bridgeman’s 1720’s ‘landskip’ — he knows the garden better than anyone, having painted it in all seasons and most weathers and times of day. The majority of the paintings, reproduced so well in The Gardens at Rousham: Paintings by Francis Hamel (Clearview, £30), date from the ‘pandemic era’. The result is a remarkable testimony, by an artist of prodigious talent, to the genius of Kent, the sensitive forbearance of generations of Cottrell-Dormers, and the significant attractions of this garden. The oil-on-linen paintings are essentially, but not slavishly, representational and deeply atmospheric. The book also contains illuminating essays by the artist, as well as the novelist Joanna Kavenna, the garden designer Tom Stuart-Smith and the garden historian Christopher Woodward.

The Spectator, Ursula Buchan, October 2021