Books on the landscape paint a vivid picture of how many great gardens took shape discovers Harry Mead.

SIR JOHN VANBRUGH AND LANDSCAPE ARCHITECTURE IN BAROQUE ENGLAND edited by Christopher Ridgway and Robert Williams (Sutton, £16.99)

NO matter how familiar you are with the fact that Castle Howard was the very first building designed by Sir John Vanbrugh, soldier and playwright, the thought never fails to startle. But Castle Howard, together with the even grander Blenheim Palace and, a little more modest, Seaton Delavel in Northumberland, perhaps too dominantly define Vanbrugh's outlook. This collection of 11 essays, by a variety of contributors, seeks to show how, through the extraordinary range of smaller buildings that went with his great houses - temples, mausoleums, pyramids, bridges - Vanbrugh played a leading part in the development of landscaped English gardens, with which he is not immediately associated.

GENTLEMEN & PLAYERS: Gardeners of the English Landscape by Timothy Mowl (Sutton, £12.99)

VANBRUGH appears here too. Mowl, who lectures in garden history at Bristol University, suggests he was "more influenced by the memory of military fortifications than by any visions of a classical Arcadia". Mowl's theme is the interchange, or perhaps cross-fertilisation, of ideas between the professionals, or semi-pros, like Vanbrugh, and clients - the gentlemen - who demanded certain effects and sometimes did them themselves to great aplomb. A visitor to the newly-landscaped Stourhead gardens in Wiltshire in the 18th century remarked: "All the buildings and plantations are the present owner's doing, without any assistance but common workmen to plan or lay out the whole seven miles' extent, nor could Brown (Capability) have executed it with more taste and elegance".

HISTORY AND LANDSCAPE: The Guide to National Trust Properties in England, Wales and Northern Ireland by Lydia Greeves (National Trust, £30)

INCLUDING Stourhead (see above) this latest (5th) edition of the National Trust's "Bible" as usual profiles all the Trust's properties alphabetically but for the first time also contains essays on special topics such as water gardens and the use of local materials. The many excellent photographs, all in colour, include more than 60 by Stokesley-based Joe Cornish, the Trust's favourite landscape photographer. Just two quibbles: it perhaps isn't healthy to be seduced into almost believing that the real Britain of bestriding pylons, football-pitch-sized Asdas, and sodium-lit industrial "parks", doesn't exist; and isn't it time the southern part of the long-abolished Cleveland County was firmly restored to Yorkshire?

Published: 05/04/2005