Norah Lindsay

First Ladies of Gardening

I envy Heidi Howcroft. And then again, I don't. When I wrote Gardening Women. Their Stories from 1600 to the Present, I mentioned over 200 women who over the centuries contributed to our marvellously rich horticultural heritage - and I still got accused of leaving people out! So the task facing Howcroft in choosing her 'fourteen most significant women gardeners of the last 60 years' must have been daunting. So it's my turn now to say for starters - no Penelope Hobhouse? No Nancy Lancaster? 

Her brief was clear however. There had to be a garden to photograph - Penelope Hobhouse has been on the move in recent years, Lancaster's work no longer on view. So Sissinghurst, East Lambrook Manor and Waterperry make the cut even though Vita Sackville-West, Margery Fish and Beatrix Havergal are long gone. Beth Chatto, now 91 years old, has pride of place as do the three generations of Kiftsgate women carried on by Anne Chambers. Rosemary Wallinger's work at Upton Grey Manor is the perfect choice to focus on Gertrude Jekyll.

There is no question that Mary Keen and Helen Dillon deserve their places among this selection of 'pioneers, designers and dreamers'. I love both their gardens, one in deepest Gloucestershire, one in suburban Dublin. Like Beth Chatto, these are women who are 'green' to their fingertips, don't care for flower fashions but love to experiment and above all grow what they want. Note the brilliant dustbin plant pots in Dublin (below). © Marianne Majerus

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But for me, the envy comes because Howcroft has been able to give space to some gardeners who don't have famous names but are so deserving of their place as 'first ladies'. I've never visited Rachel James's garden at Eastington Farm on the Jurassic Coast in Dorset but I want to now. Sadly it is not listed at the back as opening to the public.

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Finally, such a worthy entry for Sue Whittington's beautiful garden in the heights of Highgate, north London (above) © Marianne Majerus. Over thirty years ago, it was Sue's garden that inspired me to hope that one day I have a garden worthy of opening for the National Gardens Scheme. I used to queue at opening time for a chance to buy from her memorable plant stall, all hand-raised, unusual and rare. Sue is still a stalwart of the London NGS and Marianne Majerus's mouthwatering photographs made me itch to be back there again on her open days

Howcroft and Majerus's book (for it is a good balance of words and pictures) is a welcome addition to the lexicon of works on women gardeners. 

First Ladies of Gardening by Heidi Howcroft. Photographs by Marianne Majerus (published by Frances Lincoln, March 5, HB £20)

The garden history writer who published under four names

Full marks to Sue Minter for finally giving the Hon. Alicia Amherst her rightfully place in horticultural history. Or should that be the Hon. Mrs Evelyn Cecil? Or the Lady Rockley of Lytchett Heath? Or the Dowager Baroness Rockley? Confused? You wouldn't be the first. These are all the names that aristocratic author Alicia Amherst, author of The History of Gardening in England (1895) published under. No wonder Sue Minter entitled her biography, The Well-Connected Gardener.


Alicia Amherst painted by her daughter, Maud, holding a stem of the yellow form of the Gloriosa lily she had collected on her visit to South Africa in 1899-1900

Minter hails Amherst as the 'founder of Garden History' but also questions why she isn't better known. Her titles came from family and marriage but she was given many high horticultural honours including being the only woman to be given the Freedom of the Worshipful Company of Gardeners at a time when her contemporaries were Gertrude Jekyll and Ellen Willmott (a friend).

Amherst was never a 'public' gardener in the sense that Jekyll and Willmott were and although I've always thought that many great female gardeners have disappeared from notice because they did not write about their garden work (Norah Lindsay being the most obvious example), she is one of my 'Gardening Women' for her astounding contribution to garden history writing.  Amherst achieved great fame through her major works on garden history and I did enjoy the story of her tussle with her publisher, Bernard Quartich.

My 'History of Gardening in England' came out in the autumn of 1895, and no one could have been more astonished that I was at its huge success. Quartich, the publisher, made an offer for a 2nd edition, three weeks from the day it first came out. His offer was double to what he had given for the 1st - £50, instead of £25. I was advised to refuse and, within a few days, he offered me £250.

  Sue Minter has impeccable credentials for tackling this biography.  She was the first female Curator of the Chelsea Physic Garden for ten years from 1991 to 2001 when she left to become Director of Horticulture at the Eden Project. Amherst herself was on the Management Committee of the Chelsea Physic Garden which now holds her uncatalogued archive. It is good to finally have the full background to the woman who wrote the book that should still be the starting point for anyone interested in garden history. Sadly it is no longer in print but thanks to fellow blogger, VegPlotting, for sourcing an online version of The History of Gardening in England at the Open Library site.

Just a reminder, I'll be speaking about 'Gardening Women' at the Chelsea Physic Garden on May 5. Full details also on the link under Events in the left-hand column.


Norah Lindsay at Kelmarsh

Last weekend I was up at Kelmarsh in Northamptonshire for their second Home & Garden book day. It was a chance to meet some lovely people and to see for the first time, the glorious gardens which were in part created by one of my favourite 'gardening women', Norah Lindsay. Unfortunately I was so carried away by the rose garden that I pressed video instead of picture on my camera for most of my shots but one managed to get through.

You might not think so from this picture (I love the camel-like humps of topiary) but Lindsay did not go in for a 'tidy' style of gardening and was happy to let seedlings grow much to the disapproval of her sister who preferred gardens that were 'a blaze of colour, very bright and rather formal' as was the fashion in Edwardian times. She was paid a retainer by her clients and later lived from grand house to grand house surviving on their hospitality.

One such client was Nancy Tree who later became Nancy Lancaster, the influential interior designer from Colefax & Fowler. I can see why she loved Kelmarsh so. The house and garden nestles in rolling landscape having been perfectly placed by its 18c designer, James Gibbs.

Lancaster's final garden at Haseley Court nr Oxford was another design masterpiece which I have never forgotten visiting shortly before her death in 1994 aged 97. 'Gardening,' she used to say, 'is best done on your stomach, weeding with your teeth.' Despite always living the life of a grand lady, Nancy Lancaster remained a hands-on gardener to the end.


Norah Lindsay at Chirk Castle

One of the aims of this website is to create an online source of information about women and horticulture together with the gardens they were involved with especially those that there wasn't room to include in my book. The first addition to this database is a romantic garden created in the grounds of Chirk Castle, Nr Wrexham. Norah Lindsay, one of my favourite 'Gardening Women', a grande dame with grand ideas, was a close friend of the Howard de Walden family who leased the calse in 1911. Norah stayed with the family not only as a friend but as a garden designer. She influenced the design of the topiary and created enormous labour-intensive herbaceous borders -but there were eighteen gardeners to tend them!

Chirk Castle is now maintained by the National Trust. Visit their website for opening dates: Chirk Castle