The Garden at Buckingham Palace: An Illustrated History, by Jane Brown, with photographs by Christopher Simon Sykes. Royal Collection Publications, 224 pages, £30.
Americans all know Buckingham Palace in London. Whether they’ve stood with their camera lenses poking through the railings to capture the daily ritual of the changing of the guard, or know it from television images-the King and Queen waving from the palace balcony on V.E. Day in 1945, the Prince of Wales kissing his ill-fated bride, or the Guards band playing “The Star-Spangled Banner” after 9/11-it’s as familiar as the White House. This royal palace, in the very heart of London, exemplifies, for people all over the world, the British monarchy and its imperial heritage.
Buckingham Palace is not only a symbol of one-time regal power and the scene of many picturesque, sometimes even important, public events-it’s also a private dwelling, home to the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh (together with troops of staff to attend them) for much of the year. These dual, seemingly incompatible functions are also evident in the history, layout and contemporary use of its garden.
The Garden at Buckingham Palace, by Jane Brown, is the first complete book on the subject since Peter Coats’ way back in 1978, and as such is to be welcomed, since it opens the door on a secret garden. For 11 months of the year, the part of the garden on the house’s western side is a private family space (and playground for a dozen Corgi dogs), completely cut off from the frenetic metropolis behind high surrounding walls. However, on a number of afternoons in July, garden parties are held there, so it’s temporarily invaded by the populace-albeit a populace on its very best behavior. These invitations are treasured: for the delicious and lavish teas, for a chance glimpseofthe Queen and the probability of a stroll in the enormous, park-like garden. It has been an important opportunity for sovereign and people to connect with each other for more than 200 years.
Buckingham Palace came into royal hands in the mid-18th century, bought by George III, the man who was to lose the American colonies. It was a 17th-century brick house which had belonged to the Duke of Buckingham, among others. John Nash gave it a Georgian limestone front and back in the 1820′s. There had been a garden behind it at least since the Duke of Buckingham’s day, when mulberry trees were grown there. Although eminent garden designers were consulted from time to time, it seems mainly to have developed piecemeal, and that’s part of its charm. The large triangular garden consists essentially of sweeping paths, fine mature trees, a large lake, shrubberies, a long, rectilinear, complex herbaceous border and colorful summer bedding, especially on the palace terrace. Many of the rarest plants there wouldn’t normally thrive in London, but benefit from a particularly warm microclimate in the shelter of the walls. It’s a garden which seems set in a late Victorian time warp: part head gardener’s garden, part open space, part shady park.
Jane Brown is a garden historian of note, the author of Gardens of a Golden Afternoon, a seminal work on the early 20th-century partnership between architect Edwin Lutyens and garden designer Gertrude Jekyll. Ms. Brown has also written books on the social history of British gardening and, most recently, a readable account of the history of the rhododendron, Tales of the Rose Tree.
To many people, the most interesting chapter of her new book is likely to be the one concerning the wildlife that’s taken up residence in the palace garden, fostered by a benign and sensitive horticultural regime. As Ms. Brown puts it, “it is an ecological rarity as an isolated habitat of some 16 hectares (39 acres) walled for 150 years in the centre of a great city.” There have been two important natural-history surveys, one in the 1960′s and another 30 years later. The garden can boast, for example, of 287 species of beetle, 630 species of fungi (of which two are new to science) and many rare wildflowers, including “The Queen’s Own Hawkweed.” Water and garden birds as well as fish species, there are in plenty. The greatest recent disaster to affect the wildlife was the incident in 1996 when an urban fox killed all the African flamingoes.
The book’s subtitle is “An Illustrated History,” and the illustrations, drawings and old photographs from the Royal Archives are enlightening and intriguing. However, they are thoroughly outdazzled by the photographs taken by Christopher Simon Sykes during the course of one year. These appear in great profusion throughout the book, often interrupting the flow of the text, but it’s unlikely that any reader will mind much, for Mr. Sykes seems able to elicit every incident of beauty from a garden which in places verges on the horticulturally dull. He’s even managed to catch the garden clothed in snow, a rare occurrence in central London these days.
The book is some 10 1¼4 by 12 3¼4 inches in size, in order to accommodate the wonderful photographs. However, it has one substantial design flaw which does the author no favors: The text is not split up into short-width columns, and is therefore wearisome to read at length. This is a pity, since Ms. Brown writes engagingly and with much erudition. Nevertheless, this is definitely the book for anyone who has wondered (and haven’t we all?) what goes on behind those forbidding walls, or who has caught a hurried, tantalizing glimpse of a shimmering lake when sitting on the top deck of a bus traveling between Hyde Park Corner and Victoria.
Ursula Buchan is the gardening columnist for The Spectator.