Hidcote Bartrim

hidcote from greenhouseThree years later he applied to be a British citizen in order to serve in South Africa with the Imperial Yeomanry. His application was successful and Johnston fought in the Boer War initially as a private soldier and later a commissioned officer in the Northumberland Hussars. He continued to serve in the British Territorial Army after the war, rising to the rank of Major, and in 1914 again joined the colours to fight in the First World War. He was wounded in 1914 in the first battle of Ypres and spent some time in England recovering from his wounds before returning to France in 1916. After the Great War Johnston used his military experiences to help organise and lead a number of plant-hunting expeditions to such places as the Swiss Alps, Argentine Andes, the South African veldt and the Yunan Province of Southern China. Among the plants he brought back to England was Gordonia axillaris which received an award of merit from the RHS in 1929. Through his membership of the exclusive Garden Society, Johnston was also in touch with many of the leading plantsmen of the day and used these contacts to add to his ever-growing collection of new and exotic flora.

Lawrence Johnston never married, remained very close to his mother all his life and, in spite of (or perhaps because of) his wartime experiences, became increasingly reserved and socially aloof. He seems not to have been anti-social, however, developing and maintaining a close circle of friends and acquaintances, including the artist Norah Lindsay and her daughter Nancy to whom Johnston bequeathed Hidcote on his death in 1958. Following the example of his mother, he spent much of the latter period of his life in southern France where he had established a second garden, equally famous in its day, at Serre de la Madone. In addition to being a devoted gardener and plant-hunter, Johnston was also a talented amateur artist and passionate dog-lover, further prerequisites for a successful, Austen-era English country squire. Like his mother before him, he also chose to be buried in England, at Mickleton in Gloucestershire, rather than in France.

hidcote vistaJohnston's background has led a number of commentators to suggest he could have walked out of a Henry James novel. While understandable, such a characterisation may underplay Johnston's determination to become an English country gentleman. It is fascinating nonetheless to speculate on whether Johnston and James met and, if so, what would James have made of his rich and reticent countryman. There is no evidence the paths of the two crossed even though the period they each lived in England - Johnston at Hidcote and James at Rye in Sussex - overlapped. It is possible James was acquainted with Johnston's mother, the inveterate socialite Gertrude Winthrop, who was of James' generation and came from the strata of society the famous novelist was both fascinated by and aspired to be part of. Perhaps she was among the guests of one of the 107 invitations to dinner that James accepted in London alone over the two-year period 1878 to 1879. James was certainly acquainted with the American novelist Edith Wharton who we know visited Hidcote on a number of occasions (and described Lawrence's garden there as 'formidingly perfect'). It seems likely, sadly, the two men did not meet. Still, just as David Lodge, in his wonderful novel Author Author, has Henry James confronting Agatha Christie during one of his cycling tours of the Romney Marshes, this should not prevent some aspiring writer making much of the possibility.

But I digress. After returning home from the Boer War, Johnston become increasingly interested in gardens and gardening. In 1904 he was elected as a Fellow of the Royal Horticultural Society and, as Graham Pearson describes in his book Hidcote: The Garden and Lawrence Johnston, frequented the organistion's library at Lindley. Among the numerous books Johnston borrowed during this period, Pearson continues, were Thomas Mawson's The Arts and Crafts of Garden Making and Gertrude Jekyll's seminal works Wood and Garden and Home and Garden. The chance to give some practical expression to this gathering theoretical knowledge came in 1907 when Johnston's mother purchased the 287-acre Hidcote Manor Estate located near Chipping Campden in the Cotswalds in Gloucestershire. At the time of purchase the grounds around the stone farmhouse consisted mainly of lawned areas broken up by a few garden beds. There was also a small kitchen garden, a tennis lawn and a nut orchard. In subsequent years virtually no stone was left unturned by Johnston and his staff as they transformed this flat and relatively dreary expanse into the magical garden we see today.

Much has been written of the garden at Hidcote extending from H. Avray Tipping's two articles published in Country Life in 1930 to the plethora of books, newspaper reports and television shows that are available today (some of the most recent works are listed below). There is general consensus that Hidcote is a prime example of an arts and craft movement garden which, in line with the principles described by Thomas Mawson, combines the intimacy and romance of discrete garden enclosures or 'rooms' with immaculate and (usually) framed vistas of what lies, or may be found, beyond the hedges that define the garden's structure (Vita Sackville-West thought the hedges, or 'living barriers' as she called them, served also to 'deepen the impression of luxuriance and secrecy'). Much less has been written about its creator and his connections with the garden that survives in his name. Has he and his gardeners simply produced an exemplar of the picturesque garden style envisaged by Mawson, Jekyll and other designers of the time, or does the garden at Hidcote reflect to a lesser or greater degree Johnston's own experience, spirit and artistic temperament?

Again the absence of any written reflections by Johnston himself means we can only speculate on the answer to these questions. I think, though, there is more of Johnston in his garden than we perhaps allow. It is no accident that he and his key associates produced a classic arts and craft movement garden, not only because the tenets that informed that style of gardening were in favour at the time, a not unimportant consideration, but also because they helped deal with the particular ghosts and legacies of the First World War. Johnston, his gardeners and close circle of friends had all just endured a cataclysmic period in their personal and broader social lives, a period that witnessed the destruction of a generation of young Britons, the rendering of British society and psyche, and the demolition of the confidence and assuredness that had characterised the preceding Edwardian era. The introspection and quietude manifest in Hidcote's design must surely have served as a kind of palliative to these deeply troubling legacies. If not that, perhaps the garden was an attempt by Johnston to reconstitute the certitudes of the age in which he grew up.

Nor should we discount the role of Johnston's long and continuing association with the military. Norman Dixon and other military psychologists tell us that people of Johnston's temperament are often attracted to the military because it offers them the kind of stability and security they enjoyed within the family, not to mention the opportunity to engage in the kind of 'boys own' adventures that Johnston later pursued as a plant-hunter. The strength and stability of Hidcote's overall structure and design could well be a product of these underlying desires. Indeed are the framed vistas and, in places, flamboyant plant selections genuflections to Johnston's compensating need for adventure? Perhaps this is going too far although, again, maybe not for an aspiring novelist or film-maker. Whatever its genesis, the garden at Hidcote is a remarkable achievement and well worth visiting and revisiting.

hidcote sentinels

The National Trust's website on Hidcote provides more information about the garden, when it is open and how to get there. It and google pictures also provide a great series of images of Hidcote (and other Trust gardens) which do far more justice to the place than my meagre and somewhat idiosyncratic collection. In March this year BBC Four showed a one-hour documentary, Hidcote: A Garden for All Seasons which tells 'the story of Hidcote - the most influential English garden of the 20th Century - and Lawrence Johnston, the enigmatic genius behind it'. I haven't seen the programme but imagine it is up to the Beeb's usual high standard. I await its viwing on the ABC here. As mentioned, there have been numerous books and other pieces written on the garden. In addition to the National Trust's various publications, recent works include: Fred Whitsey, The Garden at Hidcote (2007, Frances Lincoln), Ethne Clarke, Hidcote: The Making of a Garden (2009, W. W. Norton & Compaqny - an enlarged edition of a book originally published in 1989), and Allan Ruff, An Author and a Gardener: The Gardens and Friendship of Edith Wharton and Lawrence Johnston (2009, Packard Publishing).