My garden has been as hard as a brick and I have had to battle to keep it going. I have been sustained by fellow combatants, found in a newly reprinted book which turns out to be built on struggle too. “Ours is an ordinary garden,” it begins. “It is perched on a slope of the Chiltern Hills, exposed to every wind that blows. Its soil is chalk; its flowerbeds are pale grey. A spade’s depth below the surface the earth is like solid cement and one might be hacking at the white cliffs of Dover.” I like this realism. We hear too little of it in our age of dreamy garden photographs and aspirational writing.

The author is the famous wood-engraver Clare Leighton, widely admired in pre-war Britain and postwar America for her rhythmic images of rural life and manual work. In 1935 she published her one gardening book, Four Hedges, and enjoyed prompt success. She had planned its engravings with careful thought but her writing still matches up to them. It blends exact observation and empathy and provokes instant recognition from active gardeners on difficult soils.

Four Hedges has just been reissued by Little Toller books with a short introduction by the nursery-owner and broadcaster Carol Klein. She, too, testifies to this sense of recognition. Clare has a sharp eye for that “peculiarly satisfying occupation, the massacring of dandelions”, or the need to dig so as to end weeks of “untrue life with the attitude of a spectator”. She is excellent on vegetable plants which are left to flower. She believed that “In a world where science shelters us from all the hardness of life, gardening gives us our only chance of a stimulating battle with the elements.”

The appeal of this “battle” is only partly evident in what Clare chooses to tell. The half-acre garden behind her four hedges was only four years old when she wrote about it. Already she valued the fine gradations in the “multitudinous” forms of wild grass, long before our modern fashion for ornamental meadows. She loved so many wild flowers with local country names and even recalls one called “meet-him-in-the- entry-kiss-him-in-the-buttery”. Nowadays it sounds like a case of sexual harassment on the way to the kitchen. In 1934 it was the name for a pansy in Lincolnshire.

If England’s hot June and July have seemed evidence of global warming, her book restores a sense of perspective. Summer in 1934 was a real 1976 of a furnace. “The heat is terrific and strikes like a knife,” she writes in July after dry weeks since May which had made the chrysanthemums so early “that one wonders what will happen later”, just as we are wondering now what will happen because the blue hardy plumbago is already in flower. Winter was crazy, too. By Christmas 1934, “all around are the first spears of spring bulbs” and gardeners are “frightened” at this warm merging of the seasons, just as we were frightened until mid-December last year. In 1934, too, the winds were extreme. The difference is that Clare never blames her carbon footprints.

Instead, she thinks tellingly about birds. Here the change seems poignant in our birdless wastelands. She takes hedge sparrows for granted, finds nests everywhere and is a connoisseur of blue tits. They twitter, she notices, if they are serenaded with the “lighter, higher pitched records on our gramophone”. She even discovers that tits twitter best in response to a Mozart oboe quartet.

It was “our” gramophone because she was living with “Noel”, the man who values the ashes of a bonfire for the salts they contain or who draws a formal garden-plan so that “frilled edge of flower contrasts with severe edge of design”. However, there are references to a wider world. She mentions parties in London and Mediterranean travel and an American friend who “asked us what strange white fertilizer we had spread over the garden and would not believe us when we told him it was merely our earth”. At Four Hedges there was always a servant and a gardener to hand, remarked with a consciousness of class.

What is it that the book does not reveal, even in its new edition? What happened to the garden after 1935? Who was “Noel” and how old was he when he insisted on mowing the orchard by hand scythe, sweating over it day after day? Noel detested gaillardias in “red and yellow” and the colours were banned. In his childhood a “Salvationist nurse terrified him with stories of hellfire and the blood of the Lamb”. Clare, too, was “scared” by the mild December because her nurse had told her of the Day of Judgment. “At the end of the world there would be no difference between the winter and spring, summer and autumn, except for the falling of the leaves.”

Such details provoke curiosity. “Noel”, I discover, was HN Brailsford, one of Britain’s most vocal and widely travelled leftwing activists. In the 1920s he had visited the new Soviet Russia and written How Soviets Work. He was also known for his hit of a book on rebel India, followed by his anti-war Property or Peace? in the very year that Clare describes him planting lupins in unsuitable soil. He was already 62 to Clare’s 37 when they mowed some of their orchard by hand. They had met in the mid-1920s when he had invited her to do engravings for his far-left magazine The New Leader. He then separated from his alcoholic wife and cohabited with her. Behind the story of Four Hedges is a shared leftwing vision, anchored in a struggle with the seasons.

For Clare, Four Hedges house and garden was a return to earthy reality after a dizzying lecture-tour of America. Her observations of labour and nature were not only linked to her eye as a wood-engraver. They connected with the social realism she shared with Noel. Before they gardened together, she had taught in slum schools in south London, where a child once drew her a picture of spring as a flowery meadow behind a barbed wire gate and a sign saying “Trespassers Will Be Prosecuted”.

Undeterred, she believed that we can all respond to the natural world and that art is lurking in each of us. She found that “slum children” needed to be “levelled up” to beauty, while her rich young lady-pupils needed to be “levelled down” to doing things among “noise and mess”.

Clare had no children and never married. Four Hedges was the rural outlet of two owners on the far left, socially committed beyond the need to uproot groundsel.

By 1937, Noel was in Spain, urging on the leftwing volunteers. “God bless old Braisford,” wrote one of them in the front line. “We need more men like him.” Clare, meanwhile, felt otherwise and, after an emotional bruising, emigrated to America. She left with only a suitcase, a typewriter and a paintbox. By 1939 she was sleepless in Baltimore, living in a fifth-floor flat. She revived herself by buying herbs from a farm in Maryland and then moving deep into North Carolina.

Four Hedges’ text belongs in this wider vision. The garden was abandoned but the vision lived on. In 1946, Clare was invited to lecture to a big American garden society and told them of the challenge before them. We “must all add our weight to the spiritual balance”, she declared. “The Shelleys and the Mozarts and the Hans Andersens are remembered, not the financiers and the bankers.” The challenge has not changed.

Get alerts on Life & Arts when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window)

Comments have not been enabled for this article.

Follow the topics in this article