John Brookes made garden designers of us all and his final book, A Landscape Legacy, is to be treasured. There have been other books over the years, a great legacy of gardens, and we are most fortunate that he has, at the very end of his life, written this present volume which he describes as “a scrapbook of things which have caught my eye and with which I have made a connection – a retrospective of my work”.
John Brookes has an international reputation and has left behind an internationally admired body of work but, in my mind, his greatest contribution to gardening and garden design was that he enabled those with a small garden, the suburban semi-detached or the smallest plot, to see the potential and the value of good design and he showed that not only did these areas deserve good design but could be designed well with just a little guidance.
It was John Brookes who coined the phrase ‘Room Outside’, a perfect phrase to capture his philosophy that the garden was for people, that it was for use, that it should be practical and a benefit as much as a joy to those who used it. More than any other garden designer he was a designer for the people. He was inspired at the very start of this career by the Canadian landscape architect, Christopher Tunnard, to move away from the English landscape style of gardening to an approach which melded form and function: “He believed, as I have come to believe, that gardens are works of art and that modern houses needed modern gardens” – modernism and modern art were a great influence on his work.
There was an early spell with Nottingham Parks Department with some time in the design office under the Dutch landscape architect, Harry Blom, and afterwards, in 1956, he moved to a position with the London-based Brenda Colvin and was later an assistant to Dame Sylvia Crowe. This intense experience with architectural planning had an enormous influence on his work. Both Brenda Colvin and Sylvia Crowe believed that the residential garden should be considered an extension of the house and should be connected with its architecture both visually and functionally – which, no doubt, lead to John Brooke’s famous “grid system” of garden design and his landmark book, “Room Outside” in 1969 where he laid out his fundamental tenet of garden design: “A garden is fundamentally a place for use by people…and you could not create a plan for a garden until you had considered how it was to be used.” It was possibly the most influential and democratic book ever written on garden design and its influence continues to this day.
The earlier chapters give best insight into John Brooke’s development as a garden/landscape designer from his early influences to the early learning stages of his career on to journalism, teaching and Chelsea appearances – his being the first garden ever to be listed under the designer’s name. He was also to the fore in the use of concrete and gravel in the garden; the first to show a vegetable garden – not only a ground-breaking designer but a trend setter who influenced garden design for the past decades.
A substantial portion of the book reviews his own work, from early small private gardens and large public gardens, his engagement with modernism, time in Iran and India, projects in America, Canada, Japan and Russia and back to his home garden at Denmans which gets extensive coverage in his final chapter.
It is a delightful and insightful book and as important in the literature of garden design as his monumental “Room Outside”.
[A landscape Legacy, John Brookes, Pimpernel Press, 2018, Hardback, 280 pages, £40, ISBN: 978-1-910258-93-4]