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Reviewed by:
  • The Riverside Gardens of Thomas More's London
  • Christine Coch
C. Paul Christianson . The Riverside Gardens of Thomas More's London. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006. viii + 160 pp. index. append. illus. $45. ISBN: 0–300–10905–9.

This sumptuously illustrated book recreates eight early Tudor gardens along the banks of the Thames, from Hampton Court in the west to the Tower of London. Its premise is that these gardens "and the values they embodied are most clearly defined for the modern reader when they are examined in the context of the political and social history bracketed by Thomas More's lifetime" (191). In focusing on the gardens of what he calls the late medieval period, Christianson contributes a crucial chapter to English garden history, restoring to full-scale study a phase often reductively represented by Hampton Court alone and scrutinized primarily for its influences on the Renaissance gardens designed later in the century. His comparative approach sets celebrated estates like Hampton Court and Whitehall next to relative unknowns like the gardens at London Bridge House to distinguish between Henry VIII's innovations and more widespread gardening practices. The focus necessarily remains on great gardens, for which historical evidence survives, though Christianson documents utilitarian horticulture at these sites as well as gardens devoted to pleasure. Even so, the scarcity of "fugitive garden data" (6) weighs heavily on his study, a "daunting" (50) factor that frequently obliges him to resort to speculation. To ease the way for future studies he offers several appendices full of raw archival data, names and dates of gardeners, garden staff, and seed and plant suppliers at several of his sites.

Such lists are for Christianson "a matter both of respect and reference" (109), reflective of the book's broader investment in balancing interest in elite estates with an awareness of the labor and laborers that created them. This perspective sets the book apart from histories like Roy Strong's The Renaissance Garden in England (1979, 1998), centrally concerned with design, not horticulture. It also accounts for the book's organization. The first half is devoted to recreating the gardens and [End Page 954] situating them in More's London, the latter half largely to documenting the economic and material conditions of gardening, with an odd loop back to earlier concerns about the social and political interests of the gardens' owners at the very end.

A compelling introductory chapter brings the gardens back to life by locating them on period maps and engravings, and by establishing Thomas More's relation to each site. Although More's relevance is not convincingly sustained throughout the book, this chapter's reflections on how gardens figure in More's life and work open an interesting avenue into texts like Utopia. More also figures prominently in the long first chapter, which surveys all eight gardens and their powerful owners: the civic London Bridge House, the royal Tower of London, ecclesiastic Winchester Palace, Lambeth Palace, and Fulham Palace, ecclesiastic and later royal York Palace and Whitehall Palace, as well as Hampton Court, and More's own manor at Chelsea, the only property held by a private citizen.

This comprehensive overview allows each of the chapters that follow to draw from the records of all eight estates to illustrate the practicalities of gardening in and around London, making a case for the existence of "a community of garden workers antedating by a century the charter of the Company of Gardeners in 1605" (18). Chapters on tools and design are rich with quirky detail, from the logistics of laying out perfectly rectangular beds to the use of ceramic "sparrow pots." Archival data yields evidence of critical shifts in the perception of gardening, as when at the end of the sixteenth century garden laborers at the Bridge House, "workmen already in the employ of the Bridge House Wardens," increasingly give way to "independent gardeners hired to tend the gardens" (115).

This reader wished the book had taken advantage of such important discoveries for a fuller analysis of how the status of the art was changing during this liminal period. So too, suggestive observations about the gardens' plans, all on estates constructed to be...


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pp. 954-955
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Archived 2009
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