Tuesday, 15 October 2013

Remembering Rosemary Verey

Influential designer: Rosemary Verey at Barnsley House Photo: NADREW LAWSON

Barnsley House

Remembering Rosemary Verey
It is now almost a decade since the death of Rosemary Verey, gardener-owner of Barnsley House, Gloucestershire.

Verey was one of the most influential designers and authors of the Eighties and Nineties, admired for elegant plantings that raised her work into the realm of classic garden design.
An evening in her honour held earlier this month at the Garden Museum in London was intended to be a timely reappraisal of her work, although it was to prove most remarkable for the revelations provided by Sir Roy Strong. But first, why the need for a reappraisal at all?
It has been fashionable in recent years to deride or ignore the Verey style. For some, she was the ultimate establishment designer, a shires lady in pearls and quilted jacket who worked for the Prince of Wales at Highgrove while also enjoying a career "selling" her Englishness to the United States through books, lecture tours and garden commissions.
Her star began to wane in the early Nineties as garden style moved on from the "good-taste" pastel tones inherited (or so it was believed) from the Arts and Crafts movement of Gertrude Jekyll, and towards the exotic palette of Christopher Lloyd of Great Dixter and Nori and Sandra Pope of Hadspen.
This was a long way from the Verey look, which depended on the soft tones of flowers such as alliums, geraniums, campanulas, clematis and aquilegia.
Also ranged in implicit opposition were Modernist designers (led by Dan Pearson and Christopher Bradley-Hole) and, a few years on, the many influenced by the New Perennials planting approach of Dutchman Piet Oudolf.
These were matters of taste in planting, but one element of Verey's style that genuinely dated quickly was the high degree of "historical" effects in her gardens, in the form of potagers, knot gardens in yew and box and small classical buildings (such as the 18th-century temple her husband, David, installed at Barnsley House in the Seventies).
Indeed, Verey's book Classic Garden Design (1984) was subtitled: How to Adapt and Recreate Garden Features of the Past. But by the Nineties knot gardens, sundials and statuary seemed so "last decade" in style - as dated as Brideshead Revisited.
But if there had been any danger of the evening at the Garden Museum becoming over-reverential, that was soon averted by Sir Roy Strong.
He began by stressing the influence his friend had had on his own garden-making and also mentioned her bluestocking credentials: despite her ultra-conventional appearance, Verey had studied maths and economics at London University, when she had also enjoyed japes such as waterskiing down the Thames.
Sir Roy wondered, nevertheless, how it was, aged 62, that she was able to burst upon the scene, a fully fledged doyenne of country house garden design. Was it really down to a passion for antiquarian gardening books?
Sir Roy went on to produce a startling revelation: that Verey had had a serious love affair with an interior designer who, he suggested, may have had a strong influence on her emerging design style and the layout of the garden at Barnsley in the Seventies.
The identity of this designer was David Vicary, an architect whose best-known foray into garden design was the fountain garden at Wilton House.
Details of the affair are recorded in a shoebox of love letters that document their trysts (now in the possession of garden designers Julian and Isabel Bannerman, who were friends of Vicary's and inherited his effects).
Vicary lived at Kilvert's Parsonage, near Chippenham in Wiltshire. He was part of the wider David Hicks circle of country-house designers, although he ended up losing his mind: Sir Roy painted a vivid portrait of Vicary's tragic final days, sleeping in his car under newspapers.
Verey was "hot stuff in Gloucestershire", according to Sir Roy, "highly sexed, like many who follow the hunt" and "the only woman I have ever known who kissed me full on the lips the very first time we met". She was so well known for her risqué behaviour that she was "barred from several houses" in the county.
Not that Sir Roy was in any way censorious, noting that Verey herself had said that her marriage to David Verey was an affectionate one that suited both parties. What raised the Vicary revelations above the level of tittle-tattle was Sir Roy's contention that it was Vicary who opened Verey's eyes to the possibilities of design.
By "outing" Verey in this way, I do think Sir Roy was making a serious point, a decade after the subject's death.
Such relationships are important in designers' lives, and it's a measure of Verey's legacy that it should be deemed interesting at all. What scandalised some - more than the revelation of the affair(s) - was the implication that Verey, as a woman, would have needed this male designer to give her all her ideas, or at least start her off on the right track.
But again, I don't think Sir Roy was being misogynistic; it was just his take on this particular relationship.
As the audience emerged into a London blighted by a Tube strike, the general chaos seemed an appropriate epilogue to an event that had seen the genteel world of Cotswolds garden design turned upside down and shaken about.
• Tim Richardson is a garden writer and critic

She was born Rosemary Isabel Baird Sandilands and educated at Eversley School, Folkestone, and University College, London. In 1939 she married David Verey, whose family owned Barnsley House.
Verey's most famous garden design was that of her own house, Barnsley House, near Cirencester in Gloucestershire. In 1970 she opened the garden for one day to the public for the National Gardens Scheme but eventually it was open 6 days per week to accommodate the 30,000 annual visitors. In 1984 when her husband David died, Rosemary Verey began designing gardens for American and British clients. Most notable are HRH the Prince of Wales, and Sir Elton John, Princess Michael of Kent, the Marquess of Bute and the New York Botanical Garden.
Rosemary Verey was well known for taking imposing elements from large public gardens and bringing them into scale for the home gardeners use. Her laburnum walk, which has been photographed many, many times, is an example of this technique. The National Trust's Bodnant Garden in North Wales has a very large laburnum walk that inspired Verey to plant a similar, smaller scale laburnum walk at Barnsley House. Verey is also noted for making vegetable (ornamental potager) gardens fashionable once again. The potager at Barnsley House was inspired by that at the Château de Villandry on the Loire in France.
She was awarded the OBE in 1996 and in 1999 from the Royal Horticultural Society the highest accolade that Society can award, the Victoria Medal of Honour (VMH).

A bolder, more dramatic Barnsley
Mary Keen on the future of the late Rosemary Verey's Gloucestershire garden, celebrated worldwide for its 'English' style

ROSEMARY Verey's death signals the end of an era. I doubt we will see her like again. She belonged to a generation of Englishwomen who possessed an uncompromising sense of duty and strength of character. The daughter of a naval officer, she always knew the value of self-discipline and her world-famous garden at Barnsley House in Gloucestershire was run with meticulous attention to detail.
Every day she rose early to walk round the beds and borders before her gardeners arrived at 8am. A diary of the work done was kept by her staff, so that when her son, Charles, took over the running of the place three years ago, he found records of daily maintenance going back for 10 years. The garden, he says, is a mine of her knowledge and skill, but he knows that she would have wanted it to evolve, because she understood that all gardens age and change. Last winter, after a ceanothus died, she said to him: "Now you can choose the right plant for that place."
With her husband, the architectural historian David Verey, she spent years choosing the right varieties to plant around Barnsley, their beautiful, 17th-century stone house. They shared an interest in buildings and history, and when she began to design and plant the garden, her influences were the early horticultural manuals that she had begun to collect.
The box hedges and knot gardens, punctuated by small-scale topiary that she devised specifically for Barnsley, were copied all over the world. Clipped balls and domes may seem obvious to us now, but they were not a common feature in the early 1980s. The tight, trimmed layouts that she wrote about in Classic Gardens made formality fashionable, but it was the potager that Verey designed for Barnsley in the mid 1980s that was perhaps her greatest triumph. Inspired by the celebrated gardens of Chateau Villandry in the Loire Valley, the potager was witty and original, its small, box-edged beds filled with vegetables that none of us had ever seen before.
Long before the River Cafe opened, I remember noticing Cavolo Nero there. When I admired it, in a spontaneously generous act that was typical of her Verey fetched an envelope and addressed it to me on the spot, promising she would send the seed when it was ripe.
The other remarkable feature at Barnsley, which has perhaps been more photographed than any other garden, is the formal laburnum walk, underplanted with the shadowy mauve globes of Allium aflatunense. After her funeral it was looking its best. Walking under laburnums in dappled shade is a very different experience from confronting their flowers in broad daylight. It was the gentleness of it all that made it so striking. Any brighter, and it would have become vulgar.
As the look of the garden changes, the colours within it will get stronger. Charles Verey likes red, and modern trends are brighter. His mother loved colour, but it was the colour of gentle English skies. Misty mauves, purples and blues, clear pinks and plenty of greens all melted into one another in her flower-beds. Although she never used primary colours together and strong contrasts and brassy orange were rare in her gardens, in its day, her palette was as original as her formal layouts.
Like Vita Sackville-West, Verey believed in planting abundantly, within a formal framework, but where Sissinghurst was strong on roses, Barnsley was the place for herbaceous plants and bulbs. In spring, the bulbs were dazzling, because she felt that early in the year bright colours worked better. She was clever with yellow, which is often difficult to use. I learned from her that it can light up gardens where stone is the dominant material. Good Planting, published in 1990, explains how she achieved her effects; by planting in layers so carefully planned that one picture faded into another throughout the year.
Her forte was high-maintenance gardening, the kind that has to be watched and managed every day. Timing is critical: the lifting of bulbs, dropping-in of annuals, cutting-back of faded perennials and constant judging of the picture. The meticulous attention to detail may be replaced by Charles Verey's broader vision. He likes the idea of developing the drama of the terraced lawn at the front of the house, but he is wary of adding to the workload and wants to continue exploring organic methods of pest control.
The fame of Barnsley brought her commissions all over the world for clients who loved her English style. She made a drought-tolerant knot garden in Florida and a herb and bee garden in Montreal. She was in Kentucky advising a new client five weeks before she died. In England, she devised rainbow borders for Elton John and laid out knot gardens, herb gardens, Elizabethan gardens and potagers in counties from Scotland to Kent. Her most prized commission was for the Prince of Wales at Highgrove; it was the pinnacle of a glittering career.

In all her famous comings and goings, Rosemary Verey never lost touch with her values, her village and the Church. In the end, it was not as a gardener that we praised her - that went without saying - but as a devout Christian who belonged to an age that is over.

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