11 APRIL 1998, Page 40

Where every prospect pleases

Oliver Rackham

TREES IN THE LANDSCAPE by Graham Stuart Thomas John Murray, £20, pp. 200 Graham Stuart Thomas is perhaps this century's greatest garden-designer and garden-writer. In 1983 he published a National Trust book on landscape (as opposed to garden) design, now reprinted with extra prefaces.

Thomas is a disciple of Humphrey Repton, Georgian designer of country- mansion park landscapes, whose methods he expounds. He discourses on the proper- ties of different trees and how their shapes, colours and massing can be used to create landscape as an art form, and — in the 1980s — to hide ugliness.

From a long lifetime's experience, Thomas includes trees that Repton never knew. But he points out that exotics and eultivars, copper beech and Lawson cypress, belong in gardens and can work havoc with landscapes. He compares paint- ings or historic photographs with the same scenes today, and, Repton-like, with the scenes of the future.

Let us applaud Mr Thomas's dictum that native trees such as oak and beech should be grown from seed, lest they lose the vari- ability which is their delight, adding that seed should not come from European Union-approved sources, selected for uniformity. But can we agree that avenues need to be uniform? For those who live with avenues, their charm lies in recognis- ing each tree as an individual. Many old avenues are a random mixture of two similar trees — two elms at Wimpole, two limes at Kentwell — with the occasional unrelated tree or ancient tree that hap- pened to be there.

Since 1983, 15 eventful years have passed. Great storms, dry summers and multiplying deer have introduced new fac- tors: no longer can we 'hardly go wrong with beech on chalk'. It is not unthinkable that someeone might create a new designer landscape on a Reptonesque scale.

Landscape history has acquired new depths. John Phibbs has shown that one landscape can be the work of many design- ers, known and unknown. Hedged farm- land can be far older than the 17th century. I commented on a 1980s schedule of his- toric parks that it included none older than 1700. Times have changed: we now know about mediaeval park landscapes, Henry VIII's emparking mania, and Tudor and Stuart parks like incomparable Grims- thorpe.

The National Trust, too, has changed. In 1983 it had the highest standards of scholarship and craftsmanship in conserv- ing historic buildings, and (thanks to Mr Thomas) historic gardens. It now has such standards also for historic landscapes: no longer are historic woods summarily replanted and hedges grubbed out.

Landscaping as an art form is not garden design writ large; it is not true that 'all nature is a garden'. A landscape artist worked on a canvas already bearing the results of thousands of years of earlier activities. He did not begin by demolishing them all. Ancient trees were conserved, lending respectable antiquity to a new park. The hundreds of pollard oaks at Ickworth are the hedgerow trees of a medi- aeval farming settlement, frozen as they were when the park was created in 1701. Many landscapes — royal Windsor, venera- ble Grimsthorpe, innovating Felbrigg are designed round majestic pre-existing trees.

English poets, artists, and landowners, from Shakespeare to Arthur Rackham, including Repton, loved and cherished ancient trees, about which Thomas says lit- tle. Alas, his working life began in the one period when even the National Trust thought ancient pollards unfashionable and untidy. Since 1983 they have been valued again for their beauty and meaning, but also as the unique habitat of special plants and animals.

The fine photographs project an ideal of landscape: rarely an ancient (still less a horizontal) tree, hardly a pollard, no moat, barrow, or ruin, none of those strange iron fences of Victorian parks, not so much as a dead branch. A tree is rebuked if its ragged top projects above a wood. National devel- opment is played down, as if a book on beautiful women were to leave out those over 30. (A distinctive photograph of the roots of a great beech has disappeared from this edition.) They portray the beauty of trees in the landscape, but I miss the majesty and meaning and mystery and fun.

This is a classic book for those studying or creating designer landscapes. But it now tells only half the story: for the other half read Thomas Pakenham's Meetings with Remarkable Trees (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £25).