Women gardeners from long ago were not as common as one
might think. In fact, it was nearly impossible for any woman, regardless of her
social standing, to work professionally in the horticultural
field, let alone design
gardens, until the early 20th century. This to me, as I’m sure many others,
must find it appalling to imagine a world where sharing your love of plants and
gardening was frowned upon unless, of course, you were male. But, alas, this
once male dominated domain has come a long way thanks some famous female
gardeners unafraid to do the unthinkable.
Of these strong women of gardening was Norah Lindsay. And
this is her short but sweet story that has helped inspire a number of budding
gardeners, and even a few seasoned ones like myself.
About Garden Designer Norah Lindsay
Norah Lindsay (1873-1948) was the absolute hostess, both
charming and talented, a role her upper-class mother orchestrated in order to
vet a successful marriage. And marry she did at the age of 22 to Sir Harry
Lindsay. Harry’s cousin, Lord Wantage, gave the couple the Tudor-era manor
house in the Oxfordshire village of Sutton Courtenay as a wedding present.
It was here that Norah thrived by revamping the various
gardens into the style of then current guru, writer and naturalist Gertrude
Jekyll. Jekyll was famous for her artistic approach to gardening, creating
unique plant combinations and borders of flowering shrubs, perennials and
annuals that elicited the picturesque paintings of Renoir or Monet. As Norah
tended her plants and developed her skills, this place would soon become regarded
as one of the most beautiful gardens in England.
By all accounts, the marriage was a success, until it wasn’t.
By 1924, the marriage failed and after her divorce, Norah’s finances were
precarious to say the least, so she began to use her social pull and gardening insight
to help turn the tides into her favor. She soon acquired paying gigs that
doubled as an outlet for her artistic zeal. Commissions to design gardens at
home and abroad soon poured in and, for the next two decades, her garden
design career flourished with projects ranging from British manor houses to
intricate gardens in the United States.
While these commissions kept her going, money was often
tight and she depended on the kindness of her friends and clients, often
staying at one or the others’ homes. In fact, it is said that she traveled in a
gypsy-like fashion from one garden site to another, working with different
soils and in varied climates. No one was unhappy to have her as a guest,
however, due to her exuberant style both in the garden and of her person, as
she was easily likeable. And gardeners thought she was fantastic not only
because of her magical garden designs but her vast knowledge of plants and avid
interest in everything to do with gardening. She was often seen mucking about
with a trowel herself.
Unfortunately, the only Linsday garden surviving today, at
least to some extent, is at Blickling Hall, a National Trust property in
Norfolk, England which was designed in the 1930’s. Her legacy lives on
regardless, lingering in lush, romantic planting combinations often designed or
mimicked by the late Rosemary Verey, a devotee of Norah Lindsay.