Nan Fairbrother

I am reading this classic garden history book by Nan Fairbrother (1913-1971), a fascinating  English writer and lecturer on landscape and land use. Her book is an opinionated account of the history of gardens from the Dark Ages through the early 20th century. Along the way she dispenses her erudite perspective on everything, like the following passage on medieval garden paintings:

"Some of the pathos of these garden pictures comes perhaps from the limitations of medieval art, for whether by intention or from lack of painter's skill, the people of medieval pictures never smile. In the happiest settings they have an air of unshakable sadness, as if life were incurably sorrowful despite its happy incidents. A Madonna sits in a garden bending over her child, who plays with a rose, and her head seems bowed, not from tenderness, but by the sorrows of the whole world. An angle leans his head upon his hand among the flowers, listening to his companion who plays upon a lute, and from the grief in his face we feel his heart must surely break. Botticelli's faces have this same quiet sadness, as if they remembered an old unhappiness which the eager joy of the coming Renaissance can never reach. It gives his Venus a strange mystery which haunts our memory long after we have forgotten the glowing beauties of later painters."

I completely agree with her observation of the Botticelli's faces, but I had not made the connection of their "quiet sadness" with the unsmiling faces in medieval paintings. A few pages later, she discusses the merits of Chaucer:

"Although he died in 1400, we think of Chaucer as the first of the moderns for many reasons, and one of them is that he can smile. Men have always laughed–as children laugh, even when they are frightened–at farce or knockabout or misadventure. And so they laugh in the Middle Ages. But they do not smile. We smile from a balanced state, from security and self-confidence, we smile affectionately at the ridiculous. And so does Chaucer. He is the first great writer to rise above the crippling philosophy of the Middle Ages, to feel confident enough for detachment, to look round at his companions and find them delightful and ridiculous."

And on she goes, quoting everyone from Pascal, Bacon, and Shakespeare to Milton, Molière and LeNôtre while discussing the lyrics from 13th century troubadour songs, the monastery gardens, and Henry VIII's tennis playing at Hampton Court (who was described in a contemporary account as "extremely fond of tennis, at which game it is the prettiest thing in the world to see him play, his fair skin glowing through a shirt of finest texture"), among other things. I had never pictured such a youthful Henry VIII, having only seen his portrait by Hans Holbein, painted in 1536 when the king was already 45 and about to have Anne Boleyn executed. Like everything else in this book, Fairbrother's lively and highly personal take on history makes me see it all with fresh eyes.

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