Hidcote Manor – a great story

Hidcote Manor GardensWhen you love a garden, you want to know everything about it. Not just about the garden itself, its plants, pathways and ornament, but also about the garden maker, his history, his inspiration, his life. Or hers.  If you love Dumbarton Oaks, then you want to know about Beatrix Farrand; if you love Barnsley House, then it’s Rosemary Verey (and just where is that biography?). For me, it’s Hidcote Manor Gardens and its maker Lawrence Johnston. And so I’m delighted to have been sent a review copy of Ethne Clarke’s new edition of her book first published in 1989.

Hidcote: The Making of a Garden (Revised Edition) Ethne Clarke; forward by Roy Strong. W.W. Norton, New York, 2009. 184 pages. $45

What moves us to create gardens? In the new edition of her book Hidcote: The Making of a Garden, Ethne Clarke explores the influences of family, friends and the atmosphere of early 20th-century England on Lawrence Johnston that led him to create Hidcote Manor Gardens, one of the most influential landscapes of the 20th century.

Americans Johnston and his mother, moved to the Cotwold village of Hidcote Bartrim in 1907, and Johnston (at first with his mother) began what he would not finish until 1948, the year he signed a deed of trust that handed over Hidcote to the National Trust—the first garden it acquired and which it still maintains today.

Information unearthed in the last few years led to Clarke’s new edition, which delves more deeply into Johnston’s life and times. It’s an enjoyable and fascinating read, sort of a gossipy tell-all but with actual facts and a good bit of garden design theory thrown in. Johnston brought together two warring schools of thought at the time—formal garden design versus the naturalistic approach. He used both, with a formal landscape near the house segueing into the wild further out.

Clarke traces the influence of Johnston’s family and friends, the effects of World War I and the social influences of the times had on him. The account, personable and fascinating, tells a lively story and brings Johnston and Hidcote, the first garden to be acquired by the National Trust, to life. We’ve taken two groups through Hidcote, and each time property manager Mike Beeston has told us great behind-the-scenes stories; my favorite was the rumor that Norah Lindsay’s daughter Nancy burned all of Johnston’s papers because she was so upset not to have inherited Hidcote. I’ve not seen that story anywhere else until I read Clarke’s book.

Johnston’s garden design, from the round bathing pool to the tapestry hedges to the Pillar Garden was borrowed again and again and we are fortunate to have the original as a standard as well as a continuing model.

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