Book Review Heading


Colonial Landscape Gardener
Alfred Buxton of Christchurch, New Zealand, 1872-1950

By Rupert Tipples
Published by Lincoln College, Canterbury, 1989

Reviewed by A. R. Ferguson
DSIR Fruit and Trees
Mt Albert Research Centre
Private Bag

I should say at the outset that I found this a difficult book to review. It is by no means easy reading and I believe that it could have been much improved by more rigorous editing — and yet, it contains much of interest and, like any good book, encourages wider reading and stimulates further thought.

Alfred Buxton's family emigrated to Canterbury in 1886 when he was 13. After serving a nursery apprenticeship with Thomas Abbott, the leading nurseryman in Christchurch, Alfred Buxton started his own nursery in 1893. He must have developed an early interest in landscaping because his first nursery catalogue of 1899 claimed that landscape gardening was a speciality, a claim adduced to by published testimonials. Buxton was not New Zealand's first landscape gardener nor, despite the main title of this book, do I believe that he can really be considered a colonial landscape gardener as his professional career began only at the turn of the century. He was, however, undoubtedly one of the most successful and influential landscape gardeners in New Zealand during the first part of this century. Landscape gardening is an expensive discipline and Buxton was fortunate that for much of his professional life, New Zealand enjoyed great prosperity.

Buxton laid out many of the finest gardens, both public and private, in Canterbury and other parts of the South Island. In 1912 his business expanded to the North Island and over the next twenty to thirty years he was to be responsible for many of the gardens at the great country stations in the Wairarapa and along the East Coast. At his busiest, Buxton employed up to 80 men. Large teams were required because there was no heavy earthmoving equipment and landscaping therefore depended on "pick and shovel and horse and dray". It is clear that for many of his clients, money was no problem. One of his most splendid gardens at 'Panikau', Tolaga Bay, cost more than 8000 at a time when an unskilled labourer earned only about 100 a year. At 'Homewood', Karori, the property of Benjamin Sutherland and now the residence of the British High Commissioner, between twelve and twenty men worked for several years. Of course, not all owners were that extravagant but many commissions seem to have involved gardens of at least two to three hectares. It is the scale of the work that is now astonishing.

Why owners were prepared to spend so much money is not made clear. Dr Tipples refers to Miles Fairburn's suggestion that for the colonists, gardens played a part in counteracting the effects of loneliness. However, Fairburn is, I think, really referring to a considerably earlier period. The reminiscences of Buxton's contemporaries or clients indicate that he was a very good salesman and I suspect that an element of "keeping up with the Joneses" may have been involved. This may be why so many of Buxton's early gardens look so similar, almost stereotyped, as if there was very little input from the client. Indeed, many landowners apparently wanted their properties landscaped exactly as in the model of a farm used by Buxton for advertising. I also wonder whether many clients really knew what they were getting. The photographs used by Buxton to advertise his work show gardens only a short time after planting, and the model does not seem to give a good impression of the likely density of the plantings when they reached maturity. This is why some of the photographs indicating the changes in Buxton's gardens over the years from first establishment are now so interesting.

Buxton designed and constructed gardens for almost 40 years and it is therefore probably inevitable that his design approach varied over the years. Few gardens survive sufficiently well to give a good indication of the original design and it is now difficult to separate the contributions of Buxton himself and those of his staff, particularly his son, Trevor, and Edgar Taylor who worked with him for nearly twenty years. Dr Tipples has been able to identify four phases in Buxton's career, largely according to the people associated with him. I find the later gardens the most interesting, possibly because of their greater formality and their heavy reliance on architectural features such as extensive terracing, massive stonework and walling and solidly constructed pergolas. Such gardens resemble those of the Surrey School in Edwardian Britain. A good example is 'Panikau' constructed in 1918 and still well maintained with comparatively few changes, although the original house was destroyed by fire. ('Panikau' is described and illustrated in the New Zealand Gardener of February, 1989). Other features of Buxton's work I find less appealing and some of his gardens appear rather fussy — some elements, indeed, sound suspiciously like kitsch. Dr Tipples described how "rustic" bridges were constructed out of reinforced concrete which was poured into moulds in the ground, the soil giving the rough finish required. He quotes a description of an even worse example at 'Homewood', Karori: "At the entrance is a most charming scene. Disposed in carefree attitudes around five tiny fountains are grouped several gnomes, watching with delighted attention balls kept in play by jets of water on which are played vari-coloured lights. Architectural features in stone, brick or concrete often remain, even if in poor condition, but Dr Tipples points out that it is more difficult, without documentation, to evaluate the original plantings. Even so, I would have liked more discussion on the range of plants that Buxton used and how much variation there was from garden to garden. The plantings at 'Wharanui', in Marlborough, are analysed in detail but it would be interesting to know how typical it was in, for example, the high proportion of natives planted. The photographs throughout the book make it clear that Buxton was particularly fond of cabbage trees.

In his preface Dr Tipples describes this account of Alfred Buxton as being, according to the definitions of Antony Alpers, a "primary biography", one that establishes the historical facts. There is no doubt that Dr Tipples should be congratulated on the assiduity with which he has undertaken his research. The lengthy bibliography indicates both the detail and the comprehensiveness of his reading. Occasionally, I felt that Dr Tipples was excessively concerned about the information he didn't have rather than that which he had been able to establish — that he indulged too much in conjecture, especially in the first chapters.

A more fundamental problem is my uncertainty as to Dr Tipples' intentions. This uncertainty is probably prompted by Dr Tipples himself when, in the very first paragraph of his preface, he recounts how a colleague, asked to review an early draft of part of the manuscript, questioned whether it was a "family history, a social history, a trade evolution study or a record of New Zealand's first landscape gardener and his landscape firms." To me this is a problem that has not really been resolved and the result is a book which I found quite a challenge. What could be considered a wealth of information can also be viewed as a surplus and I believe that the book is overloaded by too much barely relevant information. An example would be the over-detailed account of Buxton's antecedents, an account which is probably of very limited interest to all except family members. Too many extraneous themes are developed and although some of these may be of more general interest and others are quite illuminating, the consequence is that what I thought was the main intention of the book — the recording of the life and works of one of New Zealand's first landscape gardeners — becomes obscured. Even Buxton himself does not emerge as an individual person until late in the book and his wife remains at best a shadowy figure. What I considered to be most interesting, Buxton's landscaping work, has to be extracted from a number of chapters. Buxton's involvement with professional organisations such as the Association of Nurserymen and the Institute of Horticulture is likewise not brought together.

Colonial Landscape Gardener is very generously illustrated with over 180 maps, drawings and photographs. Most of these add greatly to the text and the views of Buxton's various gardens. R. P. Moore's panoramic views, are particularly useful. The photographs are so good and so well chosen that it is a pity that many seem to have suffered in reproduction ending up dark and decidedly murky. I have not been able to make comparisons with the originals but at least two — the view of Thomas Abbott's nursery and the photograph of Thomas George Abbott — are better reproduced with greater clarity in papers by Challenger. There are also colour plates and two in particular are delightful. These are reproductions of landscape plans painted in water colours and designed to sell the landscaping jobs. It is especially interesting to be able to compare one of these coloured plans with the working plan drawn on linen.

The book shows signs of over-hasty preparation. There are too many literals and although I did not check the bibliographic notes I did notice in passing at least several incorrect or incomplete references. There is an index of places and organisations, an index of names and a subject index. These likewise show signs of hasty preparation. For example, Buxton appears under the separate entries of Buxton, Alfred William and Buxton, AM.; Buxton, Joseph refers back without discrimination to AM. Buxton's uncle, grandfather or great grandfather; Mrs Buxton (A.W.'s wife) has only one entry under her maiden name and subsequent mentions in the text do not appear to be indexed; Trevor Buxton (A.W.'s son) has no index entries but is discussed in the text.

When Colonial Landscape Gardener was published late in 1989, newspaper publicity recounted how it had been completed during Dr Tipples' rehabilitation after a serious car accident. This publicity, although doubtless well meant, has probably done Dr Tipples a disservice. Although the considerable difficulties under which the book was written should be acknowledged, it would be wrong and, indeed, most unfair even to consider assessing Colonial Landscape Gardener simply as a rehabilitation exercise. That would be demeaning to Dr Tipples for his book can be judged on its own merits. I consider it to be a most useful addition to the history of horticulture in New Zealand. It certainly establishes the historical facts and it provides many interesting ideas worthy of further examination. It should be read by all those who are interested in the development of New Zealand landscape architecture or horticulture. Social historians too will find much of value. This is a book that will reward careful reading.

Horticulture in New Zealand: Journal of the Royal New Zealand Institute of Horticulture 1990 1(2): 26-27

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