Book World: ‘Rosemary Verey’ is an irresistible biography of a horticultural sage

October 17, 2012

People sometimes ask reviewers how they happen to choose the books they write about. In this case, the answer is easy: The picture on the cover of “Rosemary Verey: The Life and Lessons of a Legendary Gardener” was so lushly, ravishingly gorgeous that I couldn’t resist picking up the book. I subsequently learned that the Laburnum Walk at Barnsley was, according to its frequent photographer Jerry Harpur, perhaps “the most famous view of any garden anywhere in the world.”

Another reason I was drawn to this book is far more personal. I hoped that it would inspire me to become a more active gardener. Verey (1918-2001), as her biographer Barbara Paul Robinson says, “made beautiful gardens seem possible to the average homeowner. Her message was that you, too, could do this if you tried.” Built in 1697, Barnsley House certainly looks grand, but its surrounding property amounts to less than four acres, though — as the color plates in this book reveal — every foot of its soil has been deployed for banks of flowers, graveled walks, horticultural ornaments (a fountain and sundial, statuary), formally precise plantings and even a potager (an elegant French term for a vegetable plot).

Unfortunately, Robinson quickly convinced me that I might learn from Verey, but that I could never aspire to anything remotely like her gardens. She employed two full-time workmen, as well as regular interns and occasional casual labor (including, for a short time, Robinson). Most homeowners can devote, at best, a few hours a week or perhaps a Saturday afternoon to the maintenance of their lawns and flowers. Verey’s designs — often geometrical and exceptionally tidy — were labor-intensive. Plants were dead-headed every morning, rotated in and out as the seasons changed, constantly paid attention to.

It’s little wonder that Verey’s clients were nearly all well-to-do and often aristocratic — and, in some cases, even royal. Prince Charles, who became a friend, invited Verey to help with the gardens on his estate at Highgrove. King Hussein and Queen Noor also employed her talents, along with Elton John, some Kentucky horse-breeders and similar happy folk who aren’t likely to be loading their Prius hatchback with bags of mulch from Home Depot.

Robinson stresses that Verey wasn’t an aristocrat herself, though her early life was certainly privileged: a childhood in the country centered on horseback riding, a madcap debutante season, early marriage to a dashing military officer who, after World War II, became a noted architectural historian, four children (all cared for by a nanny), a married life revolving around the local hunt, tennis matches and dinner parties, some possible love affairs and active involvement with the local church. Such was Verey’s highly traditional, upper-class existence well into her middle years when she and her husband, David, began to develop the Barnsley estate.


‘Rosemary Verey: The Life and Lessons of a Legendary Gardener’ by Barbara Paul Robinson. (Godine)

Throughout Robinson’s biography, David is depicted as shy, courteous and impractical, more friend than spouse, alternately advancing and retarding the gradual blossoming of his wife’s horticultural genius. In fact, David — author of the Gloucestershire volumes in Nikolaus Pevsner’s “Buildings of England” and the founder of a local museum — comes across as a far more attractive human being than steely, perfectionist Rosemary. When he died in 1984, he left serious debts and thus gave his widow a stark financial reason to make the transition from gifted amateur gardener to full-time horticultural sage.

Feisty Rosemary gradually grows on the reader. Her personal motto was “it’s a sin to be dull.” She loved parties and hobnobbing with the rich and famous. Despite her English lady-of-the-manor persona, she smoked constantly and drank secretly, had her driver’s license suspended for a year and flirted wildly with young men. After her husband’s death, a friend declared that he was going to propose to her and that if she said no he would jump off a bridge. As the would-be suitor recalls, Robinson “ took off her spectacles, polished them, then looked at me with a gleam and said, ‘Tell me which bridge!’ ”

In particular, though, Verey is an inspiration — not only to gardening enthusiasts but to all late bloomers. Her first book, “The Englishwoman’s Garden,” appeared only in 1980, (co-written with Alvilde Lees-Milne, wife of the notoriously scandalous diarist and architectural historian James Lees-Milne). Verey was then 62, and 18 books were to follow before her death in 2001, most notably “The Garden in Winter,” “The Art of Planting” and “The American Man’s Garden.” She proved to be a natural networker, welcomed by the owners of the estates she featured and praised in her books.

She also possessed great energy and “never walked through any garden without a notebook in hand to jot down observations, plants, and ideas.” One of her interns, Sue Spielberg, remembers her workday. After issuing her orders to the gardening staff, she would sit down at her desk to plan and write:

“She had this oval table where she’d do her work with a beautiful floral tablecloth hanging down. Lovely antiques everywhere and books and that smell. She’d have fresh flowers in the house and go out and get a little posy of hellebores and have them floating in a big wide shallow dish and piles of books everywhere. You couldn’t really sit down anywhere because there’d be things she’d have to deal with and piles of the things that she’d have to read and piles of . . . reference books for her writing. It felt warm because she kept a log fire burning in there most of the time and it just had that smell and that look.”

“As with everything in life,” Verey once declared, “success lies in method.” She loved symmetry, as represented in her “knot garden” — elaborately interlaced boxwood — yet her aim was always to create a landscape “to satisfy our eyes and agitate our hearts.” When designing a new garden, she explained, “First, I make a general plan, showing paths, border shapes, prominent features, including any major tree-planting.” Then, “I simply make lists of plants for each area, because I really like to lay the plants out on the site.” (In one early journal she wrote, probably in her trademark green ink: “Be not tempted by plants that hate lime.”) Her favorite colors were “soft pinks, purples, and lavenders,” and “color, texture, and harmonious visuals were her signature.” As she once told another gardener: “We don’t do things because they’re labor-saving or low-maintenance or because they’re horticulturally correct. We do them because they’re pretty.”

And very pretty, too, is this neatly designed book from the publisher David Godine. Robinson, a New York lawyer by day and a gardener by avocation, writes not just clearly but also affectionately about her beloved, influential and rather spiky subject. Sadly, after Verey’s death, Barnsley was bought by the owners of a local pub who tried to turn it into a country hotel. Today, its famous gardens, along with many others Verey designed, have been significantly altered or allowed to decay. As Washingtonians well know, weeds never rest.

Dirda reviews books for The Post every Thursday.

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