Book Review

First Ladies of Gardening

by Heidi Howcroft
Photographs Marianne Majerus
ISBN 9-780-7112-3643-1. Publ. Frances Lincoln 2015. 176 pages.
Reviewed by Georgina Craufurd

The book consists of fourteen ‘chapters’, each one devoted to a garden created by a woman in the twentieth century. It starts with eight chapters in a section called ‘Pioneers of Design’, of which the first is the garden at the Manor House at Upton Grey, designed by Gertrude Jekyll in 1908-9. The second subject is Sissinghurst, begun in the 1930s by Vita Sackville West and her husband but substantially dating from the post-war period. In Part 2, ‘New Directions’ the last six subjects are fairly recent (from 1973 to the present), and in many cases developed or recast over decades; one forgets that gardens are not static, even when still in the guardianship of their creator.

In some senses the division is a little misleading. In the first section, more space is given to the triumphant restoration of the Manor House at Upton Grey by Rosamund Wallinger from 1983 than to Jekyll herself. Another example is Waterperry, begun when the gardening school was founded in 1937 but with a redesign typically including island beds which dates from 1964. This last example points up a further paradox with these gardens created by women. In the text it is pointed out that in so many cases the design layout and hard landscaping were set out by a man: Harold Nicholson in the case of Sissinghurst, Gill Richardson’s husband Adrian at Manor Farm in Lincolnshire, Margery Fish’s husband Walter, Lutyens frequently in the case of Gertrude Jekyll, and finally Alan Bloom who was responsible for the 1964 layout at Waterperry. Sleightholmedale in the second section was originally laid out in 1905 by a Brigadier-General, ancestor of the present owner. One gets the impression that women’s forte is planting rather than design and landscaping, though this could be the result of poor education for women until after WWII; we did not have the necessary mathematical skills.

This impression may of course also be the result of the author’s personal choice of subjects; she points out in the Forward that she was looking at her favourite gardens, which all turned out to be created by women (who were in fact largely amateurs). The gardens (apart from Helen Dillon’s latest version) could be said to be in the ‘Arts & Crafts’ tradition, with a layout of small formal areas softened by exuberant planting. Not such a new direction, then. Tim Richardson’s book, The New English Garden, recently reviewed in HGT’s Newsletter, shows that there is another side to late-twentieth-century garden design. What is of more concern are the ladies the author has omitted: for instance Norah Lindsay (who designed planting for Jellicoe’s landscaping at Ditchley, and who gardened professionally for friends), Penelope Hobhouse and Arabella Lennox-Boyd among others. There are also Sylvia Crowe and Brenda Colvin, both of whom designed landscapes as well as gardens. One feels that the choice of ‘First Ladies’ may tell us more about the author than about the subject…

It is difficult to gauge the size of the gardens covered by Howcroft, as there are no plans or dimensions (in contrast to Richardson). The photographs give the impression that most of the gardens are fairly small. So too sadly is the typeface, which I found a struggle to read; the author might perhaps have economised on the text, which is fairly loose. Most of the gardens chosen are open on a regular (even if infrequent) basis; but this information is only to be found on page 175, and then only a website is given.

The photographs, by Marianne Majerus, all seem to have been taken at the height of summer, with gorgeous herbaceous borders overflowing with colour. They are an invitation to visit.