Sylvia Landsberg died peacefully on 9 June 2021 at the age of 93.
She was known internationally as a renowned designer and historian of gardens. But more locally – as a mother, wife, sister, aunt, neighbour and friend – we remember her for her unquenchable interest in new things, her remarkable creativity, and perhaps above all for her traits of razor-sharp human understanding, of deeply engrained empathy, and of kindness.
Sylvia was an ecologist through and through. Indeed, her association with gardens and nature started even before she was born – as her parents settled on her name: Sylvia, from the Latin silvus which means “woodland”. And to her final days, nature and gardens sustained her; she sustained them; and her creations were sources of joy to thousands of people.
But she was also a gifted ecologist of relationships and of communities. She had an un-erring sense of all the vaguely-related things that were going on in your life, and was able intuitively and quickly to sense how she could offer a tendril of help – or if needed a full-branch of support. Sylvia seemed to have a natural resonance with everything.
Her creativity knew no bounds. As a creator she brought together a vision of the end product and its intended beauty, a craftsmanship in the making, and a sense of how the thing would be used or enjoyed by other people. She applied this gift not merely to gardens and the writing of books, but also to the construction of a varied galaxy of things: lampshades, placemats bearing Latin recipes in her own flowing calligraphy, children’s toys (one of which was patented), dinner parties and sandwiches of gentleman’s relish, a professional-looking hi-fi cabinet, and even an observational beehive – of which more shortly.
From her childhood days Sylvia was creative, and even then with a touch of spirituality. Her mantra was always, in the words of poet Robert Bridges: “I too will something make, and joy in the making”.
Sylvia Barkley was the oldest of four children born to William and Anne Barkley. William was a redoubtable Scot who, as parliamentary correspondent for the Daily Express, was the Jeremy Paxman of his day. He enjoyed frequent phone calls from Lord Beaverbrook’s then new-fangled carphone and upon his retirement, much silverware from MPs – even those whom he had previously slated. Anne was also intellectually gifted. Luckily (for her) she became one of the first women to attend university in Scotland after she helped a friend by accompanying her to a scholarship exam for moral support, and then won the scholarship!
Sylvia’s early childhood days were spent in a Gerald Durrell-like existence in the garden of “Oakleigh” in Surbiton. The monkey-cage left by the previous owner was un-occupied, but here Sylvia developed a life-long interest in bees. This interest culminated in her creating from scratch an observational bee-hive and early magazine articles on the subject.
She enjoyed good relationships with her siblings Dorothy, Sally and Richard for whom, and with whom, she created many toys.
School and The Isle of Soay
By a strange coincidence, Woodland Sylvia was sent during the Second World War to Westonbirt for schooling. Westonbirt was originally a medieval manor house, the grounds of which would go on to become the National Arboretum. One of Sylvia’s projects there was to research her first book: the Trees of Westonbirt School (1952), which catalogued every one of some 250 trees on the school’s estate.
At the age of nineteen, at a loss for how to spend her summer holiday, Sylvia followed her father’s advice and spent two months on Gavin Maxwell’s Island of Soay, a mile off-shore of Skye, with its shark-oil factory, to study coastal vegetation and what we now call “ecology”.
Academia and Marriage
Sylvia would become an early academic in the field to Ecology as it took hold in the 1950s and 60s. She attended London University from 1946-49, and graduated with a BSc in botany. She then moved to Aberdeen University, graduating with a PhD in ecology in 1955. Her focus was the ecology of the Forvie Sands of Aberdeenshire. With typical curiosity and acuity, she also discovered there an Iron Age village.
Courted by many but selective in her relationships, the attractive Sylvia at last accepted the advances of theoretical physicist Peter Landsberg, whom she married in 1955. She gave birth to Max in 1956, and Ken two years later. Soon after the babes learned to say “mama” and “dada”, the couple took great pleasure in encouraging the kids to move on to words like “anemometer” and “radiative cascade”, and coaxing them to eat one more spoonful with Peter’s favourite phase “… and one for Carotheodry [the eminent professor who proved the Second Law of Thermodynamics]”.
GROWING THE FAMILY
The family moved from Aberdeen to Cardiff in 1959, and Sylvia gave birth to Olivia four years later. Here the family would stay until 1972.
The Swinging 60s
Sylvia and Peter swiftly became a central part of the community in Cardiff. Based in part on their lively parties at the family home in Ely Road, they made many new friends in the surprisingly vibrant city. Their milieu included distinguished academics, entrepreneurs, and politicians.
Sylvia created, of course, a wonderful garden in Cardiff. She also turned her creativity to becoming an outstanding seamstress, sewing for Max a Union Flag waistcoat, and another one of leather.
The New Home in Southampton
Though Peter had become Deputy Vice-Chancellor at Cardiff University, he and Sylvia decided to move to Southampton – in part to be close to Sylvia’s mother, and in part because of the sunnier clime.
Here their partnership rapidly grew them new friendships as they engaged whole-heartedly in the Residents’ Garden Association of the Portswood community in which they were based. Peter revived the ailing tennis club, while Sylvia became a Trustee of the Association and advised on all things botanical. She also researched and documented in detail the history of the area.
Sylvia also set out and planted in Southampton her own garden – one of such delight that family friends refer to it as “The Garden of Eden”.
As Peter assumed a second Professorship in Florida, the couple spent several years wintering on the Gulf of Florida and summering in Southampton. In Florida, Sylvia became a quilter extraordinaire.
More crucially, however, Sylvia discovered while in Florida the works of Carl Jung. Jung was the person for whom Sylvia’s spiritual side had unknowingly been questing. Jung gave her new insights, joy, and new ways to tackle problems. He articulated her unstructured thoughts about the unconscious, and helped her to embrace the power of visual symbols and metaphors. For example, Sylvia became reluctant to write a planned book on medieval gardens, because her mentor – the eminent John Harvey – had already written one. She used visualisation to help her see that although Harvey had written the “main course” she could visualise her book as being the jug from which the first course soup could be poured…
On another occasion, Sylvia had felt caught in a web of complexity. But when son Ken gave Max the present of a reversible buff, Sylvia found she could turn her “net” into a “buff” and escape its hold.
The decades had deepened Sylvia’s interest in gardens, but it was not until the late 1970s that she turned to creating public gardens – and specifically in re-creating with great veracity the medieval gardens that are described below.
GARDEN HISTORY AND RE-CREATION
During the course of several decades, Sylvia essentially founded the art of re-creating historic gardens. She married authenticity to practicality, along the way learning and contributing to the body of knowledge on the subject. Her primary mentor was John Harvey, architectural historian and pioneer in the field of garden history.
Southampton: The Tudor Garden, 1981
After moving to Southampton, Sylvia spotted the bedraggled garden within the city’s Tudor House Museum. This revived her interest in the medieval and Tudor periods and through strenuous efforts she corralled the many parties required to bring the garden to life in a form that prior visitor Henry VIII would have recognised.
Winchester Great Hall: Queen Eleanor’s Garden, 1986
Sylvia accepted the invitation to re-create the medieval garden at Winchester Great Hall, with its knightly Round Table. In part she was drawn by the rich history of the place, and she proposed naming the garden after its two Queen Eleanors – Eleanor of Aquitaine and Eleanor of Castile.
This was also a formative period of learning for Sylvia. On the intellectual side, she enjoyed lengthy interactions with John Harvey, while on the practical side she got to grips with the realities of re-creating gardens that could be maintained within the tighter funding constraints of the modern purse. The Garden was opened by Queen Elisabeth the Queen Mother in 1986, and featured on the BBC and other channels.
Petersfield: The Physic Garden, 1988
In 1988, one of Petersfield’s original 12th century ‘burgage’ plots was gifted to Hampshire Gardens Trust by Major John Bowen. Since the 1450s, gardens had often been planted for medicinal purposes – originally at the Vatican and subsequently further afield. With her encyclopaedic knowledge of botany, Sylvia created within the Petersfield walled space a garden of three sections, inspired by the 17th century Chelsea Physic Garden. Its mission of combining education, enjoyment and conservation resonated deeply with Sylvia.
Chichester: Weald & Downland Museum, 1989-1999
For over a decade, Sylvia worked with the independently-funded Weald & Downland Museum to re-create five gardens: Bayleaf Garden (1989), Walderton Garden (1996), Whittaker’s Cottages (1998), Hangleton Peasant’s Garden (1999) and Poplar Cottage Garden (1999), each with its own special interest and story. She accepted the commissions because she was drawn to the educational mission and potential of the museum and its grounds. Discussing the Bayleaf project, Sylvia noted in the RHS Journal The Garden in June 1996 that the medieval gardener was not only extremely self-sufficient and employed many organic methods but also created very colourful gardens long before the advent of the ‘herbaceous border’.
Shrewsbury Abbey: Cadfael Garden, 1994
Shrewsbury was the fictional home of Ellis Peters’ Brother Cadfael, whose fame in print and on screen rose to prominence in the 1990s. With the central role of herbs in detective Cadfael’s investigations, a commemorative herb garden was commissioned, which Sylvia designed. Alas this garden has re-wilded at the time of writing.
Ipswich: Otley Hall, 1997
Eight miles from Ipswich, Grade 1 Listed Otley Hall was built in the early sixteenth century on a site that had almost certainly been occupied for the previous 400 years. Sylvia was commissioned by the then owner Nicholas Hagger who was also a writer and historian. Here she ingeniously re-created medieval and Tudor features including a herber, a vine-and-rose tunnel and a knot garden based on the endless knot on the cover of the future Queen Elizabeth I’s prayer book of 1544.
London: Globe Theatre Courtyard, 2000
At the age of 72, Sylvia accepted the task of re-creating a tiny garden near the courtyard of the re-created Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, working with founding Artistic Director Mark Rylance. This was a spot to be viewed by the audience as it had its own “exits and its entrances”. This garden has now sadly been replaced.
WRITING AND SPEAKING
Sylvia gave many speeches and wrote many articles on garden design with titles such as ‘The Re-creation of Small Period Gardens for Museums and Public Spaces in Britain’ in the journal Museum Management and Curatorship (1995). She was also heavily engaged in the Garden History Society.
Somehow she shoe-horned much of her immense knowledge into the Tardis of a book The Medieval Garden, published by the British Museum in 1996. It is an erudite work: as she said, “one of the pleasures for a garden historian is being an armchair detective squeezing every scrap of detail out of the given documents”. Yet characteristically for Sylvia it is also an intensely practical work: the final chapter being “Make Your Own Medieval Garden”!
Peter’s health eventually started to decline. For five years, now in her eighties, Sylvia gave Peter exemplary support. Unknown to her children, she obtained three quotes to have a lift installed in the house and oversaw its construction; she had a new shower-room installed; she often stayed up until 2 a.m. to attend to unfinished chores.
After Peter’s death, the local community offered Sylvia companionship through book groups, the Samovar tea group and revived friendships. Sylvia was extremely grateful for this, and by the accounts of subsequent letters of condolence, she returned that support including to others who had recently lost their own spouses.
With reducing mobility, Sylvia eventually lost the ability to stand up from a seated position. She knew instantly the huge implications of this and eventually came to terms with them: not wanting to be “hoisted like a sack of potatoes”, she knew she would now be confined to bed.
For eighteen months she was cared for in the bed from which she did not want to see her delightful garden, but from which she was happy to see the hundred trees visible beyond the window pane, and hear the birds twittering as the woodpeckers clacked. She always had Nina, her amazing carer, and at least one of her children with her, and until the bitter end she revelled in learning new things. With Nina’s help she continued to learn about the music and the French castles of the Cathars, until her very last day.
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Sylvia had an easy-going and unassuming style but her character had strength. She retained not only the ability, into her 90s, to pipe up with the Latin name of any shrub that was presented to her, but also had an inherited Scottish canniness. She was essentially a woman of immense generosity, calmness, and joy. She also had the spiritual streak that was fortified by the reading of her psychological mentor Carl Jung.
Sylvia changed to their benefit the lives of a great many people, all of whom will miss her and remember her with huge fondness.
She had the gift of being able to plant in people the seeds that would grow, blossom and eventually bear their own fruits.
She leaves behind two sons and a daughter.
© Max, Ken and Olivia Landsberg; June 2021