Restored garden is tribute to Gertrude Jekyll – and current owner

Image of Robin Lane Fox

Garden visiting is so hard to time for the best effect. The season, early or late, is one problem. The light and weather are others. Professional photographers take most of those dreamy garden pictures in the very early morning or the evening when garden owners do not exactly want the rest of us tramping round their lawns. In mid-morning, as the day’s rain slackened, I have just had a spectacular visitor moment in Hampshire. It was helped by the sight of the lady owner’s waterproof garden hat and stylishly knitted floral jersey.

Ros Wallinger

In a central sunken garden, four formally shaped beds, set in lawn, were teeming with pink peonies. So what, you may think, but the setting is one of the most praised garden restorations of the past 35 years. There are not just a few peonies like those you have at home. There are more than 40 of them, flat out, at times literally, as their heavy flower-stems lie along foliage carefully held together by hidden garden twine, tailored yearly by hand on canes to suit each bed. Almost every one of the peonies is a fully double pink-flowered Sarah Bernhardt, the celebrity among peonies from the Edwardian past. “They are my theatrical moment,” said their planter and keeper, Ros Wallinger, advancing on me like a supporting actress from a nearby flower bed. As the rain cleared and the light gained strength, I could only agree.

The peonies are central to her work at Manor House, Upton Grey, an Arts and Crafts house with a chunk of black-and-white timbering in the centre of its tile-hung “Tudorbethan” façade. Its owner, Wallinger remarked to me, wanted the “practical garden of a self-made industrialist”. In fact, Charles Holme was a keen student of the arts, and the founder of the magazine The Studio which launched with illustrations by Aubrey Beardsley and preceded that hardy perennial, Country Life. He would love our FT Weekend. In 1908 Holmes, or perhaps his first tenant at Upton, a Mr Best, turned to the queen of English planting, Gertrude Jekyll, and asked her to design the garden. A surveyor visited and drew plans of the narrow five-acre site. Miss Jekyll then drew out a tightly-concentrated plan for either side of the house: on one side, a wild garden; on the other, a formal pattern. The formal design has good proportions and so many of her hallmarks: dry stone walls, a sunken garden with geometrically shaped beds, flanking borders and lawns on separate levels. She then drew out the planting plans for each bed.

At the time she was 66, but spinster “Aunt Bumps”, as her nieces called her, was not running out of steam. In 1908 and 1909 she drew planting plans for at least another 14 gardens. Before the age of motorised transport she did not often visit the sites herself. She may never have come to Upton Grey in her pony cart at all.

Thanks to Wallinger it is now one of the great showcases of a Jekyll garden. In 1984 she and her financier husband, John, bought it as a mass of rough grass, stones and neglect. Ros had never gardened before, but she set out to trace the garden’s original plan and reinstate it. Almost all of Jekyll’s plans had passed to America, in a fit of British neglect, and they live nowadays in the high-class care of the university at Berkeley. On a targeted visit to California, Wallinger paid for copies of Upton’s Jekyll drawings and confronted the massive task of reintroducing them.

“I had two necessary qualities,” she tells me in her garden room, which houses photos and photocopies of the garden’s history. “Ignorance and energy.” Penelope Hobhouse, the garden planter and writer, told her that she was invaluably free of “loves and hates”. She could apply her energy and subordinate her ignorance to plans which told her what to do. It took 18 months to clear most of the site and it has taken 35 years to bring it to a much-filmed and photographed peak. In 2008, 100 years after Jekyll began it, she won the contest for “I Own Britain’s Best House And Garden”, organised by the National Gardens Scheme and the BBC.

She has just published a beautifully illustrated book, her second on the subject, Gertrude Jekyll: Her Art Restored at Upton Grey. Has it all been a story of doing exactly what the old lady said?

Fascinatingly, Upton’s surviving planting plans are not always very specific. “Pink peonies,” they simply say, or “3 Escallonia”. The surviving plans are Jekyll’s own, not necessarily those, now lost, which she sent to her client. The client’s may have been more precise. Meanwhile, lists of plants to be sent to the Upton garden were drawn up for Jekyll’s nursery at her Surrey home, Munstead Wood. They survive and clarify several points. At other crucial ones, Wallinger had to consult and come up with a workable answer.

It has been a combination of tireless tracking and informed guesswork. Jekyll prescribed the hybrid tea rose Killarney, unavailable in 1990s Britain. After eight years of hunting, Wallinger found it in Umbria. A great lady rosarian told her that it was surviving there in an Italian professor’s garden. Graciously he sent her three rooted cuttings. Old tea roses, however, do not grow well on Hampshire’s chalky soil and despite Miss Jekyll, Wallinger is now planting selected modern David Austin varieties as a back-up.

The peonies are a triumphant guess. Jekyll specified the colour but not the variety, although classic Sarah Bernhardt was available in 1908. The old girl would surely love it but she might not have chosen it in such profusion. Wallinger claims to have peonies in flower from late April to mid July, beginning with the neglected Lize van Veen. Again she has had to improvise.

Sometimes she has had to correct. To follow the peonies, Jekyll specified white Lilium longiflorum, which is not always a hardy variety and not so good on chalky soil. The glory of modern Upton is the scented Regale lily which is having a stupendous 2013, growing to exceptional height. It revels in Hampshire but as it was only sent in from China in 1903 Jekyll might have missed it for her plan. Later she loved it too.

By living for 35 years in Jekyll’s tracks Wallinger has absorbed so much of her style and taste. What does she think of the famous narrow drifts in which Jekyll liked to plant border plants? They are long and thin groupings, not the usual round blocks. “Honestly,” she says, “they dissipate into bigger groups over time.” However, when Wallinger visits other garden borders, she notices they are clumping, not drifting. They ignore, too, Jekyll’s graded colour schemes which developed so tellingly from her work as a painter.

I can testify to her follower’s fidelity. In the sloping borders of an adjoining bit of garden I admired the delphiniums and the matching campanulas and thought how clever Jekyll had been. In fact, the plants are being grown as a support collection for the main garden. Most of them are varieties which Jekyll used, but the arrangement is Wallinger’s own. She mistook Jekyll’s intended Campanula lactiflora and planted latifolia instead.

Will the two gardening ladies get on if they meet in flowery Paradise? “I admire her, but she would find me spiky,” Wallinger replies. “Not a bosom friend.”

Contemporaries sometimes found Jekyll spiky, too. Go and see their shared garden before it shuts at the end of July. Otherwise, plan for the peonies in 2014. “If nobody came, I would not do it,” Wallinger remarks, needing the audience which other gardeners dread. “But I do not walk the sod she trod.” Unlike myself, Miss Jekyll never walked through Upton at its seasonal high.

‘Gertrude Jekyll: Her Art Restored at Upton Grey’, by Rosamund Wallinger, is available from the Antique Collectors’ Club, priced £29.95

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