Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Garden People by Ursula Buchan (Thames & Hudson)

I have just read this most interesting book and decided to write a review. It is a collection of photographs taken by Valerie Finnis (of artemisia fame) over several decades. They have been assembled by Ursula Buchan, who wrote the text, providing information about who the people in the photos were, and what their connection was with Valerie Finnis. There is also a series of short biographies of the people mentioned in the book by Brent Elliott, as well as a short biographical essay by Anna Pavord.

A Thames & Hudson book (2007)

There has always been an interest in gardening and garden writing. However, beginning in the early 1980s, this interest developed rapidly in North America. Much of it was the result of numerous very good gardening books that were published in the U.S. at the time  and quickly  became classics of the genre such as Allen Lacy and Henry Mitchell's books (among many others), and especially Eleanor Perenyi's Green Thoughts (1981) which I would say is my favourite.

Traditionally, British people have been much more interested in gardening than North Americans, and  there have been numerous excellent garden writers all through the 20th century, beginning with Gertrude Jekyll and William Robinson. British garden writers, gardeners and gardens, benefited from this new found interest in gardening at the end of the 20th century, and names like Christopher Lloyd, Penelope Hobhouse, Rosemary Verey and Vita Sackville-West became quite well-known, mostly through their writings.

Valerie Finnis in old age (from the book reviewed)

Garden People, by Ursula Buchan (Thames & Hudson, 2007) is a book meant for all of us who have been reading about gardening and gardeners.  It is a series of portraits of gardeners photographed over several decades by Valerie Finnis. Some of these gardeners, like Margery Fish, Will Ingwersen, Graham Stuart Thomas and Vita Sackville-West are well known. Some of the others names might ring a bell, such as Sir Cedric Morris, Dame Miriam Rothschild, Miss Havergal and Valerie's own husband, David Scott (featured in The Englishman's Garden edited by Alvide Lees-Milne and Rosemary Verey, 1988).

There are also portraits of much less known but unusually interesting gardeners, some of whom would have contributed to maintaining the British reputation for eccentricity such as Cecily 'Parsley" Mure shown watering her alpine trough in an evening gown, and Rhoda, Lady Birley, who also cuts quite a figure with her corduroy slacks, fancy shoes, scarves, old cardigan and bee hive battered straw hat.

Margery Fish

I enjoyed the book very much, in large part because it allowed me to put faces on many names I had read about over the years. The photographs are very good (especially when you consider that Valerie Finnis never took more than one exposure because of the price of photographic film).

Valerie Finnis must have been an original lady. She noticed the man she was to marry because he was the only person she had met who was able to identify Gillenia trifoliata! A photo shows them both in the garden weeding an hour after their wedding (admittedly late in life for both of them)!

Ursula Buchan's text is, as always, very informative and interesting. Anna Pavord's reminiscences contribute a lot to a more rounded picture of Finnis, and Brent Elliott obviously did a lot of research to provide a biography of each of the gardeners mentioned and photographed in the book. Garden People is a testament to another era,  when plants were grown in clay pots, women gardened in "frocks" and men in tweed jackets.

I would like to thank Thames & Hudson for allowing me to use photos taken of the book cover and of some of the portraits in the book. 


  1. Looks like an interesting book. Thanks for the review! Those Brits, they really are a nation of gardeners, so many beautiful gardens and memorable gardeners. I have Ursula Buchan's book 'A Green and Pleasant Land' about gardeners in WW2, but haven't read it yet.

  2. It's sad to see so many new houses being built in the UK that have hardly any gardening space at all.

  3. Thank you so much for the review! That photo alone of Cecily 'Parsley" Mure sold me on the book. It's a personal generalization, I know, but the British seem to be both more serious and more whimsical about their gardens than the rest of us.

  4. A slouch hat, quilted vest, man's cardigan, and double strand of pearls. The English really know how to "do" class!

  5. Why is it that there are more serious gardeners over there? Is it the mild climate? Anyhow, there are certainly many English gardeners who have a style of their own.

  6. Sounds very interesting - just ordered Heidi Howcroft's new book about gardening icons...have to make new shelves soon ;)

  7. Valerie Finnis and I would have gotten along well. I have a nice patch of gilienia and added more last fall. Sounds like an interesting book. Thanks for the review.

  8. Thanks for reviewing this book, which sounds interesting to me. It's not just another How To book, of which there are so many, sometimes my eyes start to glaze over when I read them. I love memoirs and biographies, so I might check this one out.

  9. This sounds like an interesting read. I'll have to make a point of looking for this book.


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