The background on the desktop of my computer is an image of yellow and mauve—a photo of the laburnum at Barnsley House in England. This tunnel of wisteria with ornamental onions growing informally on either side of the path is reputed to be one of the most widely photographed garden scenes in the world yet I have not yet tired of it. It was the creation of Rosemary Verey (1918-2001), another one of those fascinating women who start a new career in mid-life and make a great success of it.
Barnsley House was her husband David’s parental home. What were once lovely borders had become grassed over and with her husband’s encouragement she gradually brought the garden back to its former glory. With time, she opened the garden one day a week for the National Gardens Scheme, a charity where private gardens were opened for ‘a shilling a head’. Eventually this was expanded to six days a week because of the demand.
Verey loved propagating plants and soon had surplus stock which she sold to the garden visitors. Visitors invariably asked her for advice in planning their borders and she made “a rough sketch on any odd piece of paper, using the plants we had for sale.” She often was asked to help with the planting and in the end, she said, it was “all good fun” and she discovered so much, “especially about practical gardening”.
So although her career as a garden designer started in what she describes as “a small way”, she soon found herself travelling the world giving speeches on gardening, writing books that became best sellers (The Scented Garden, English Country Gardens, Garden Diary and Making of a Garden), and creating gardens for such famous people as the Prince of Wales and Elton John.
I expected Verey’s garden to be one of ‘good taste’, with a formal structure and lots of soft, pastel tones. As one who is attracted to messy gardens with unexpected planting schemes, I thought I would find this garden uninspiring but instead I loved it. It has many meandering flowers such as hardy geraniums and Lady’s mantle and the planting is luxurious and full. There is interest throughout the season for she planted in layers, an approach that I dutifully follow.
What is most remarkable about her garden is that she incorporated, within a small space, elements that we usually associate with grand gardens. She did this so skillfully that visitors believe they can do it too. Indeed, several of her design elements have found a place in my Canadian garden. Aside from the laburnum tunnel, her most influential creations are the knot garden (based on a 17th-century design) and the potager (an ornamental kitchen garden that made vegetable gardens a feature rather than something that was hidden from sight). The gothic summer house with the child’s swing out front is another example of her approach to design—simple yet sophisticated. Throughout the garden there are numerous vistas and places to pause.
I have read that today her gardens are sometimes described as unfashionable —created by ‘the lady in pearls and quilted jacket’ who sold her ‘Englishness’. Pay no attention for there is much here to admire and inspire.
P.S. We happened to land at Barnsley House on a day when it was open to the public (for a charitable donation), something I understand is rare so check into that before you go.
By Sylvia Fanjoy
Photo credits Sylvia Fanjoy
© Riding the buses 2011