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Thomas Blaikie (1751-1838)
The ‘Capability’ Brown of France

Patricia Taylor

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Subject: Biography/ Gardening History
royal octavo
Illustrated: numerous paintings, photographs, drawings
ISBN: 1 86232 110 8
Paperback £20

Review of Thomas Blaikie from Scottish Rock Garden Club

Over the years there have been several short accounts of the life of Thomas Blaikie and his diaries were published in 1931 but this new book by Patricia Taylor is a monumental work of great erudition dealing with the life of this great botanist and gardener with more than 1500 references. If this sounds intimidating the book is a truly wonderful read flowing along smoothly and elegantly.

Thomas Blaikie was born in Edinburgh in 1751 and after a spell collecting plants in the Alps he became the foremost garden designer in France at the end of the 18th century. He soon became a favourite of Marie Antoinette and the book gives fascinating insights into the life of the French Court before and during the Revolution with graphic accounts of many of the horrors of that period as well as the problems Blaikie faced with the Allied armies when they invaded Paris. It is as much a social history as a gardening book. Because of the many problems of life in France, Blaikie was unable to return to Edinburgh which he had left in 1770 until the year 1820. He did not remain there long and came back to France where he died in 1838.

The book deal thoroughly with his life from his early days. He was fortunate that he was passed over to go as a botanist with Captain Cook in favour of David Nelson who then came home with Bligh on the Bounty and was killed. His diary telling of his exploits as a plant collector dealt with the plants, the people and the customs of the remote mountain regions of the Alps, particularly around Chamonix. In contrast is his life as a garden designer in France where he soon became the foremost man of his day, but always beset by political troubles.

The book is a mine of information presented in a methodical manner and full of fascinating insights. His alpine plant list in the book amounts to 1700 species and he succeeded in collecting plants and seeds of the most desirable garden-worthy species. As Patricia Taylor says in conclusion, Thomas Blaikie was ‘ an extraordinary gardener and a remarkable man’. This account of this remarkable man is also a remarkable book.