Sunday, 7 September 2014

Alvilde Lees-Milne & Rosemary Verey

As readers of the this blog will know I have an interest in the twentieth century diarist, novelist and art historian James Lees Milne.  Reading the Bloch biography I was struck by the formidable character of his wife Alvilde.  Like her husband she was bisexual, indeed not too long after their marriage Alvilde embarked on a tempestous relationship with Vita Sackville West.  What interested me, and let's be frank gave me a bit hope, was her late flowering career as both an author and garden designer.  In her seventies she collaborated with another renown gardener, Rosemary Verey, (her husband David Verey wrote a number of the Shell County Guides) on producing two books:  'The Englishwoman's Garden' and 'The Englishman's Garden'.  Not only that but she found herself designing a garden for Mick Jagger of all people.  Browsing through a well-known internet auction site I came across both books.  Although the quality of the photographs inside as printed is not up to today's standards both books do offer a snapshot of post-war English garden design.  The structure is the same in both books: there is a forward by a well-known gardener, followed by an introductory essay by Alvilde and Rosemary and then a collection of illustrated essays each on a particular garden written by the owner herself/himself.  It works well, giving a real insight into the long process of creating a good garden.
The cover of the English woman's garden, which shows part of Rosemary Verey's Cotswold garden was alone worth the cost of the book.  The laburnum walk looks magnificent, and I love the contrast between the hanging clusters yellow flowers hanging there like bunches of grapes and the purple globes of the aliums beneath, which seem quite happy in the partial shade, which I didn't expect. A bit disappointing, though, that all the gardens illustrated show a propensity to nasty concrete paving, but that was the times!

The men featured tend to be more famous - Beverley Nichols, Sir Frederick Ashton, Nicholas Ridley, for instance - than the women gardeners, though emphasis is rightly placed upon the important role women played in the creation of the English Garden.  As James Lees Milne's biographer points out of the gardeners included in these books half the women were aristocrats and half the men were gay!

The collaboration between Alvilde and Rosemary was not to last, but Alvilde working with the photographer Derry Moore went on to produce a number of books on both interior design and garden design, such as 'The Englishman's room' I have written about before in connection with the architectural historian and campaigner Gavin Stamp.

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