The Bonsai Journal

Book Review:Classical Bonsai Art A Half Century of Bonsai Study

By William N. Valavanis
Published by International BONSAI

Review by Andy Rutledge | May 10, 2013

The cover of Classical Bonsai Art Immersing oneself in bonsai study for a half century is a rare and remarkable feat. Such an effort requires and suggests much dedication and the result is bound to leave an indelible mark. Having reached this commendable milestone, bonsai artist and teacher William N. Valavanis is celebrating his anniversary by sharing some of the fruits of his long and productive enthusiasm over the past fifty years.

His latest book, Classical Bonsai Art – A Half Century of Bonsai Study, is not what I expected it to be. Before the book arrived, I imagined it might be a gallery book—dedicated to glorious photos of specimens along with little more than the individual trees’ provenance and display accompaniment information. A coffee table book. And there are glorious photos of specimens in his book. But, of course, Mr. Valavanis is a teacher; his semi-centennial celebration would have to be consistent with that idiom. So this is a book you would expect from a teacher.

It has a fitting subtitle: The Creations and Passions of William N. Valavanis. The book, in part, presents one hundred specimens from the author’s collection and that of his students. Some are presented as highly detailed historical accounts, others in more cursory fashion. In the more detailed accounts the author shares not just the technical development data, but some interesting anecdotes, evolving ideas and opinions, recoveries from damage and more that, among other things, presents a compelling chronicle of the day-to-day plight of a bonsai grower. So despite the often uncommon results, enthusiasts of all levels of experience will be able to identify with the author’s efforts and anecdotes.

maple history
An account of one maple that received a significant remodeling and redevelopment.
elm history
A Seiju elm’s promising beginnings and stunning result.

Case studies aside, there are other interesting and valuable sections included in the book, which begins, not surprisingly, with some history and classification information. There are also chapters devoted to shohin bonsai and to details on the cultivation and training of maples, narrow-leaf evergreens, and flowering & fruiting bonsai. One especially nice inclusion is a section on selecting containers for bonsai. In it, the author details not just the simple aesthetic considerations, but also seasonal, climate, and quality considerations.

style classification
From the classification section of the book, this photo shows the author’s explanation and detailing of one-line and two-line cascade bonsai.
a pot/tree-matching exercise
To support the section on container selection, there is a nice tree/pot matching exercise that examines the relative faults and merits of different containers in context.

The Good

There is much to like here and the book is of good presentational quality on very nice paper. The many case-study photos span decades and while some are clearly quite old, almost all are of excellent quality and clarity. The text is approachable and thoughtfully composed. Enthusiasts who are familiar with the bonsai style classification rules would do well to review what the author has to say on these matters, as he presents some interesting examinations and even contention with certain details. Unlike with most bonsai books, that section of this book warrants study.

Each of the 100 case studies concludes with a formal presentation photo of the subject in its latest state. As the title suggests, this is a book about bonsai art and in keeping with that fact the trees in these final photos are in almost every case presented in proper condition, with proper preparation, and on a stand. Bonsai students should mark this convention, as it is the appropriate way to display bonsai. I was pleased to see the author maintain this standard and must say that I expected nothing less from Mr. Valavanis, as he does have a well-deserved reputation.

I was delighted to find that there is a section showing some nice examples of formal display, adding further dimension to the author’s depiction of bonsai art. Though I must say I would have much preferred straight-on photos rather than the perspectives selected here.

alcove displays
Some fine examples of 3-point formal alcove display.

And of course there are beautiful photos of excellent bonsai specimens, worthy of mention and admiration:

euro beech

The Bad

To find less-than-excellent aspects to this book I had to get rather nitpicky (which, fortunately or not, happens to come easily to me). The final, formal photos for each of the specimens, while mostly excellent, do present the occasional problem. There are a couple of specimens shown with the soil surface lacking proper preparation, which detracts from their artistry. And of those final photos, there are about a dozen where the stand used is in too-poor a condition for my taste. Deep and prevalent scratches on the stand distract from the quality of the specimen atop it.

Also regarding stands, too many of the photos cut out too much of the stand, again detracting from the proper artistic presentation of fine bonsai. And to get even more nitpicky, there are, surprisingly, placement (on the stand) errors shown in two or three photos. Like I said; nitpicky.

Now, I pick these nits in order to reference for enthusiasts the important artistic characteristics and standards of bonsai. Mr. Valavanis is thoroughly aware of these standards, so my references here are to the book itself, not to the man’s artistry; which is well demonstrated by his outstanding work over the past several decades.


Studying the content from front to back leaves me with the distinct impression that the man is entirely passionate about these trees, their care, their development, this art, its details, its traditions, its past, and its future. As I mentioned, passion is a fitting word to describe what the author chronicles in this book.

The presented complement of bonsai specimens reveals a broad and highly varied interest and pursuit of the art and its requisite horticulture. And that is no small thing. Bonsai horticulture is species specific, size specific, age specific, climate specific, soil specific, season specific, condition specific, and individual specimen specific. Therefore, even highly skilled enthusiasts often choose to concentrate on a narrow range of species in order to find success. The author’s success with so many different species and types of bonsai over so many decades is a remarkable testament. That someone could showcase such success in a book is in and of itself reason for others to pay attention.

This is a book for all bonsai enthusiasts. While it is presented as a celebration and reflection, it is a highly instructive effort and I expect anyone who reads it will learn much. The photos are beautiful, the trees are beautiful and interesting, and the stories are compelling. The instructional information is broad and deep and the presentational artistry is of a quality and consistency you’ll seldom find in any publication. With this book, Mr. Valavanis does indeed leave an indelible mark and I’d say it is a must-have addition to any bonsai enthusiast’s reference library.

Classical Bonsai Art - A Half Century of Bonsai Study
by William N. Valavanis
Photography by Joseph L. Noga, Frank Grillo, Bill Kramer, Dean N. Valavanis, William N. Valavanis
Publisher: International BONSAI
Clothbound Hardback $65 - ISBN: 978-0-9884042-1-2
Size: 9.25" x 12.25"
255 pages
Published 2013