When I first became interested in gardening in the mid-1970s, there were few books on the subject being published in the U.S. Thus most of my early garden book were all purchases from second-hand bookshops. My favorite local source was Paul's Books on State St. here in Madison, a model of everything one wants in such a shop: tons of titles, knowledgeable staff, wood floors and shelves, and a window filled with plants, art and alluring titles.
One of my favorite finds from Paul's is "Four Hedges: A Gardener's Chronicle," written and illustrated with wood engraving by Clare Leighton. I'm fortunate that I happened upon a 1935 first edition for only $8.95. The reasonable price reflects the fact that there is a hand-written inscription inside the front cover: Carrie Ashton Johnson from Bertha / August 24th, 1936. (Any readers recognize those names? An aunt or grandmother from Wisconsin, perhaps?)
I mention "Four Hedges" — the opening chapter is pictured above — because the book has just been re-issued by Little Toller Books, an imprint of Dovecote Press which re-publishes classic titles about nature and rural life. You can find used copies on Amazon or buy it new (free shipping) from the UK Book Depository for only $15.26.
When Leighton wrote "Four Hedges" she was a novice gardener but a highly skilled artist. I admit that I have only ever read bits and pieces of the text over the years. Though it's delightful, it was Leighton's wood engravings that spurred me to purchase the book. For much of his art career my husband has done wood cuts and wood engravings, so the book seemed like a must for our garden library — and the perfect gift for him.
The Jan./Feb. issue of the magazine "Antiques" featured an excellent article about the illustrations Leighton did for the Wedgwood china company in the late 1940s. The firm commissioned a set of 12 engravings depicting New England industries to be reproduced on a series of Wedgwood plates. The project took three years of research and execution.
The scenes Leighton chose could be considered farewell messages as they depict American life on the cusp of major changes. The images on the plates resonate strongly with me because they show industries that were also once critical to Wisconsin: ice cutting, cranberrying and logging. We are still a major producer of cranberries and lumber.
This is the back of the plate pictured above. Anyone who has seen white pines of almost any size or age can understand Leighton's description and just imagine those ancient forests that went sailing around the world.