On International Women’s Day, here are six inspirational female gardeners. From the sixteenth century to the present day, the following women have either created or designed some of the most important gardens in Britain.
I start with Bess of Hardwick. Although it was probably her four marriages which propelled her to become one of the richest and most powerful women in sixteenth century England, Bess was interested in the Arts and built the second court at St John’s College, Cambridge. Brought up in relative obscurity, she commissioned the ‘new’ Hardwick Hall in Derbyshire next to her father’s house and created the garden which was protected from the winds by high stone walls and internal hedges. After marrying her second husband, Sir William Cavendish, she persuaded him to enlarge his estate and to build a new house: Chatsworth. After Sir William’s death and two more ‘successful’ marriages, Bess had enough money to finish building the house and developing the gardens. The earliest known painting of Chatsworth is by Jan Siberechts and shows the layout of the garden c1703; it is currently being exhibited at Tate Britain.
Princess Augusta, wife of Prince Frederick, was instrumental in creating the gardens at Kew in London. After the death of her husband, the Princess instructed her head gardener, John Dillman, to ‘compleat all that part of the Garden at Kew that is not yet finished in the manner proposed by the Plan and to keep all that is now finished’; she wanted the garden to contain ‘all the plants known on Earth’. With reference to the accounts of the 1750s, Horace Walpole estimated that Princess Augusta spent between £30,000 and £40,000 on Kew – around £5,000,000 today.
The most influential women gardener of the nineteenth century and beyond was Gertrude Jekyll. Jekyll designed gardens with colour as the guiding principle, planting large swathes of informal groupings with the emphasis on harmony and rhythm. Charles Holme, founder of the Arts and Crafts magazine The Studio, bought the fifteenth century manor house at Upton Grey in Hampshire in 1906 and commissioned Gertrude Jekyll to design the garden. Using Jekyll’s planting schemes, the garden has recently been beautifully restored by Rosamund and John Wallinger. Jekyll often worked with Edwin Lutyens and at Hestercombe in Somerset, they created the garden below the house with its spectacular borders, geometric beds and water features.
I have chosen two inspirational gardeners from the twentieth century: Phyllis Reiss and Vita Sackville West. With her focus on all year round interest, Reiss designed the garden at Tintinhull in Dorset in 1930s. Its series of rooms are separated by hamstone walls and filled with colourful borders and clipped hedges. At a similar time, Sackville West and her husband Nigel Nicolson, were creating the stunning gardens at Sissinghurst in Kent. Nicolson concentrated on the layout of the garden while Sackville West planted the magnificent colour-themed rooms including the famous White Garden.
There are so many inspiring garden designers today but with my background in historic gardens, I have chosen Isabel Bannerman who, along with her husband Julian, developed part of the garden at Woolbeding in Sussex. The entrance courtyard was formerly the old farmyard but now has a Mediterranean feel with water providing a backdrop to the colourful planting. The Long Walk leads to the lake and the summerhouse designed by Philip Jebb; the Bannermans transformed the space into a theatrical landscape by replanting the area and adding a Rother God made from stone and oyster shells and a yellow Chinese Bridge.