719: The English Park by Susan Lasdun

by Gerard

719.320942: Lasdun, Susan. The English Park: Royal, Private and Public. New York: Vendome Press, 1992. 203 pp. ISBN 0-86565-131-0.

Dewey Construction:

  • 700: Fine Arts
  • 710: Civic and landscape art
  • 712: Natural landscapes
  • 712.32: Public parks and natural monuments
  • +09: Historical, geographical, or persons treatment
  • +42: England and Wales

My pace is reading has slackened of late for a single reason: The Olympics. Every two years (I watch both the Summer and Winter Games), whatever project I’m working on comes to a standstill as I sit in my living room, eyes transfixed on the television, watching the best athletes in the world do amazing things. Even in the midst of arguably the largest project of my life, this year is no exception. So…it took me eight days to read a 200-page book. That is almost unheard of.

But—to the book at hand!

Today’s book has a nice tie-in to the 2012 Olympics because it’s all about the history and social context of English parks. Greenwich Park, a historic hunting park near London, is the venue for this year’s equestrian and pentathlon events, and Hyde Park (basically the Central Park of London) is where long distance swimming and the Olympic triathlon will be held.

Susan Lasdun’s English Park traces the origin of the modern park back to the Ancient Persians, who created tree-scapes called pairidaeza (later to become the English paradise). Pre-Norman England saw the creation of the first large-scale parks, with Ongar Great Park listed as the oldest known park. It was mentioned in 1045 and most certainly in existence for a bit before then. The first formal parks were areas from which the royalty and aristocracy could hunt animals and extract wealth. While the tug-of-war between the public and private always exists in green spaces, it isn’t until very recently that parks became areas of communal gathering. They were reserved for the wealthy to enjoy as yet another way of keep their distance from the hoi polloi of Great Britain.

Lasdun’s chronicle of the shift of parks from manor landscape to public space is intriguing as it (like almost everything else) is tied to the social and political landscape. Whereas now public parks are engineered to become organic combinations of people and trees, older parks were meticulously shaped and manicured to display our grand power over Nature.

While Lasdun’s prose can be a little dry at times, the work itself is a good combination of history and art. The illustrations are plentiful and help the read understand the nature and scale of the English park. All in all, a splendid read.