Dorothy Elmhirst

Who were Dartington Hall's women gardeners?

I'm just back from a weekend at Dartington talking about Gardening Women at the Ways with Words annual book festival.  And what an enjoyable weekend it was. Being more used to the parched earth of Suffolk, Devon's lushness even in the current dry conditions was a delight especially the beautiful gardens which surround Dartington Hall itself. I particularly loved the planting of the yellow and blue long border.

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So it was a double delight to find out that it was two women who were brought the gardens to life in the twentieth century: Dorothy Elmhirst and Beatrix Farrand. Here are some snippets about them from the history of Dartington Hall.

"Dorothy Elmhirst and her husband, Leonard, were ultimately concerned with the creation of the gardens from 1925, when they purchased the Dartington Hall estate, until their deaths in 1968 and 1974.

"When they came here the grounds were neglected and overgrown with weeds. The shrubberies reflected Victorian taste, the tiltyard was a pattern of formal flower beds, but beneath the worn out surface lay an extraordinarily dramatic landscape setting - a coombe with terraces flowing into a wider river valley, whose folds drifted away southeastwards to the sea.

"It became a matter of freeing the form of the gardens from entanglement; there was never any question of imposing a design upon the landscape. The contours of the land were used to intensify the natural effects of height, depth and distance. Trees and shrubs were introduced to give structure to the compositions, lawns to emphasise space, evergreens to provide interest and texture through the winter.

"The great trees planted by the Champernowne family, owners of the estate for centuries before the Elmhirsts came, were cleared of undergrowth so that they might stand out in all their grandeur, and vistas were opened up to give greater sweep to distant views and to link the garden with the countryside beyond.

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"Dorothy Elmhirst had a large hand in the choice of plant materials, especially so in the years following the last war when much of the filling in of the basic design was accomplished. She also had an extensive knowledge and love of trees, shrubs and plants, but to carry the work through she and Leonard had relied on professional help from both sides of the Atlantic.

"Most celebrated among their consultants was the American garden designer Beatrix Farrand who became involved in 1933, by which time the tiltyard had already been cleared and turned to its first use as an open-air theatre. Mrs Farrand brought order to the Courtyard and designed the cobbled drive that circles the central lawn, overcoming problems presented by awkward ground levels. The following year she began opening the garden out by creating paths and connecting links. Three Woodland walks were laid out and planted using Yew, Bay and broadleaved Hollies as background material for a rich variety of camellias, magnolias and rhododendrons."

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