What is it with gardening that it seems determined to be stuck in a genteel 1950s? I couldn’t believe this title. But it has one of the very best photographers, so I thought we ought to have a look.
Anne Wareham, editor.
First Ladies of Gardening:
Pioneer designers and dreamers. By Heidi Howcroft. Photographs by Marianne Majerus
Reviewed by Katherine Crouch
The prospect of reading a garden book with ‘ladies’ in the title raised my hackles, while my grubby-thumbed paws tried not to get the pages dirty. The term implies a life of refined delicacy unhindered by grime, a state of grace I alternately desire and despise.
We prevaricate about naming ourselves. Lady Mary Keen does not wish to use her title or be called a ‘gardening lady‘. To go ‘out to lunch with the girls‘ is OK but to term the women’s Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race teams ‘ladies‘ or ‘girls‘ is not OK. This book oscillates uneasily between ‘ladies’, ‘women’ and ‘owner’ to start with, but ‘women’ outnumbers the other titles two to one, and suddenly half way through the book, the titles disappear, the women in question being referred to by name or ‘she’.
Once I got that out of the way on the first flick through, I settled down to a more thorough reading, very much enjoying the luminously lit photographs by Marianne Majerus and the histories of English and Irish gardens that happened to be created by women who rejoice in perennials and seasonal delights in their gardens.
The book is split in two, with historical and contemporary sections. The usual suspects are given a chapter each – Sackville-West, Fish, Verey, Chatto, but also given space are less well known women such as Beatrix Havergal who founded the Waterperry Horticultural School. Penny Hobhouse gets a mention in the introduction, but as she has only the wreckage of Hadspen to mull over these days, Ms Majerus has nothing to photograph.
The book could easily have been twice as thick, it misses out many influential women gardeners. No Anne Wareham indeed! I would have liked to have seen more ‘before’ photographs of the gardens in their unimproved state, and as Susie White suggested in her review in the Society of Garden Designers magazine, maps of the gardens would also have helped.
Ms (Mrs? Miss? Heidi?) Howcroft’s descriptions of the history of the gardeners and gardens was clear and informative. The management of change and preservation is ably discussed. The contemporary section introduced me to gardens I was entirely unfamiliar with, engrossing me until midnight. Less than an inch thick, this is not too heavy to prop against the knees in bed, so the entries might have been restricted by weight as well as length.
Not just a coffee table read, the lists of guiding principles and signature plants is well worth plundering. I shall give this book to my mother for her birthday. I suspect I might borrow it back again for reference occasionally.
If only the title was less cringe-worthy. But what to call it? ‘Gardens We Like and Wanted to Photograph that Just Happened to be Made by Women’ isn’t exactly catchy….
What I have learnt from ‘First Ladies of Gardening’
How to do it What I do
Marry a rich man Fail. Twice.
At least have a man with enough money
so you don’t have to go out to work Fail
Have enough money to get a decent house Fail
Work very hard as a professional gardener Fail
from an early age
Do not have children Fail. Twice
If you do have children do not work Fail
If you have children pack them off to
boarding school Fail
At least, have a lovely garden . Fail