The invisibility of women in professional horticulture during the mid-twentieth century is something I bang on about in Gardening Women. It was so hard to make a living let alone a mark at all levels so when I found women who had, at the highest level, I've been delighted to trumpet their achievements.
One such woman is Brenda Colvin who, having trained with her friend Sylvia Crowe, became one of Britain's top landscape designers. Crowe and Colvin are often lumped together – they trained together and then shared an office together but were never actual partners. So I'm thrilled that a sumptuous new book has been published written by Trish Gibson which amounts to a detailed examination of Colvin's work and her contribution to twentieth century landscape design.
Brenda Colvin and Sylvia Crowe met each other at Swanley just after the First World War. While Crowe worked as a garden designer for a nursery in Barnet until the Second World War, the more wide-reaching scope of landscape architecture immediately attracted Colvin, and she started her own practice in 1922. They both not only achieved enormous success in their careers but became hugely influential among the profession, ignoring any barriers and letting their work speak for itself.
Brenda Colvin went to Swanley in 1919 after a peripatetic education in India, England, and in France where she had taken art classes. Her first horticultural interest was in growing fruit, but once at Swanley she became intrigued by Madeline Agar’s classes in garden design. Here, she realised, was the opportunity to bring together her taste for design and the outdoor life and in her second year, she switched courses and became absorbed and stimulated by Agar’s ideas.
Agar, who was a pioneer of landscape design and had had to go to America to study it, was by now busy with her own practice, and an inexperienced student not much older than her classmates replaced Agar at Swanley, much to the horror of Colvin and her fellow pupils. ‘The last straw for our small group of garden design students came when our youthful tutor produced, instead of dumpy level and instruction on triangulation, a bowl of water and some Plasticine and set us to kindergarten exercises in model making.’ The students, led by Colvin, rebelled and took private tuition from Miss Agar.
Soon afterwards Colvin joined Miss Agar as a clerk of works and site assistant on the war memorial garden at Wimbledon, and before long Brenda was being offered small freelance jobs for friends and relatives, and found that a ‘small but satisfying livelihood was available’ despite the very low fees. After two years learning at Miss Agar’s side, Colvin left to establish her own practice. It eventually thrived, though she was the first to admit that the early 1930s were difficult, and by 1939 she had advised on some three hundred gardens, including some in America.
One of Colvin’s largest projects was an addition to the Archduke Charles Albert Habsburg’s garden at Zywiec in Poland in the late 1930s. In a marvellously sweeping statement in 1979 she explained how the fate of this garden pushed her towards designing open spaces for public and industrial organisations. ‘[I] have heard…the place was over-run by German troops and later became a Russian barrack, so regard it as typical of what happens to private garden work.’ Hardly the fate of the average suburban garden, but enough to make Colvin feel that public garden work had a ‘greater hope of survival’. Her move into the public sector after the Second World War is rightly lauded, and she remained adamant that the work of the landscape designer is often lost through changes of ownership or just by pure neglect.
Gibson is to be congratulated on her thorough look at Colvin's work and anyone seriously interested in the development of British municiple landscape design will want to explore this book. Gibson appeared earlier in the year on BBC Radio 4's Woman's Hour talking about Colvin which can be accessed through this link.