The people behind the gardens

Lives of the Great Gardeners by Stephen Anderton, Thames& Hudson, €30 approx.

If I’m being honest with you, I normally switch off when people start talking about different schools of garden design and varying styles. It’s not that I’m uninterested nor that I wish to be rude, but to me, each garden designer does their own thing and works on the basis of what they feel is right for the site.

Each garden space is different and each garden designer is different, and this is what makes the word of gardening and design so magical; that any space can be designed and developed in as many different ways as there are individuals.

Perhaps as a designer I have a label, however, I don’t wish to know what it is, for that knowledge could influence the way I look at garden spaces in the future. I’d rather look at the space, the home or business that it surrounds and, of course, the spirit and wants of the owner of said space and go from there.

The people behind the gardens

If it sounds a bit OTT to say that I let the space talk to me, I try and feel it, then I apologise, but I cannot think of another way to put it.

The same is true when I am looking at established gardens, I’m far more interested in admiring the space for what it is and how it feels more than the style label that it fits into.

I was delighted, therefore to recently receive Stephen Anderton’s Lives of the Great Gardeners. This is a book about the people behind the gardens.

I was under the impression, before I opened the book, that I didn’t really know a huge number of famous gardeners, because, in the same way that I’m not into the different names of design styles and types, neither have I spent much time studying who it was that designed what, I’m more interested in plants and planting.

The people behind the gardens

However, a cursory glance through this beautifully-produced book finds me between “aahs” and “oh, I didn’t know that” and “oh, so that’s what he looked like”.

Although I may not have realised it, I knew the names of so many famous gardeners and how immediately familiar they were.

The likes of Graham Stuart Thomas, who, in 1983 chose a lovely yellow rose — bred by his friend David Austin to be named after him — the stunning yellow rose that went on to become the world’s most popular rose in 2000.

The people behind the gardens

Vita Sackville West too, is immediately recognisable by name, though I knew nothing of her story. Although I knew she was responsible for the magnificent gardens at Sissinghurst, the most visited of gardens in the UK, but the more I read about her the more intrigued I became.

Who would have thought that a book about gardeners would be as compulsive a page-turner as a Dan Brown novel? Born of the Third Baron Sackville and granddaughter of a Spanish dancer, Vita would be consistently on the front page of all the red tops and gossip magazines were she alive now — she would inhabit the sidebar of shame, goodo.

As I look at the photograph of her in the book, pictured next to her husband Harold, (right), I can’t help thinking of one of the characters from Absolutely Fabulous.

The people behind the gardens

In 1913 she married high-flying diplomat, Harold Nicolson and later eloped to Paris with Violet Trefusis, daughter of the Prince of Wales’ mistress, Alice Keppell.

This relationship fizzled out and Vita returned to her marriage in the UK and in the 1930s the re-united couple acquired what were the ruins of Sissinghurst Manor.

This became their passion for the remainder of their lives, and Vita lived, worked and slept in the Tower, which rises majestically from the garden. Here she wrote, for she was first and foremost a poet, in glorious isolation, in a way which reminds me of Yeats in Thoor Ballylee.

There are many more stories in this book — grab a copy for a gardener — or just for yourself.


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