The Tipping point

Who invented country living and the pining for a rural retreat away from sex and the city? The poets of ancient Rome? William Wordsworth? Here is an unexpected answer. “If we try to trace the source of the whole phenomenon of country living as a lifestyle choice, we will find a solitary figure sitting under a pergola in the lush Monmouthshire countryside: Henry Avray Tipping.” The claim is made by Helena Gerrish in her handsome new book, Edwardian Country Life. She lives in a Tipping house and since 2002 has been restoring a Tipping garden. Against all expectations she makes a fascinating case, directly relevant to what Sir Roy Strong has recently called “visions of England”. Weekenders in Britain will have to take her Tipping point seriously.

Henry Tipping died aged 75 in 1933. He was a garden designer, a garden historian of distinction and, above all, a crucial figure in the formative years of the magazine Country Life and its seminal studies of English country houses and gardens. Tipping designed the garden around Chequers, the weekend retreat for British prime ministers. His book English Gardens appeared in 1925 and is still fascinating reading. He wrote for as many as three newspapers at once. He also designed houses and when a contemporary marvelled at the money they must have cost, he replied: “I do not care to keep racehorses or dancing ladies. I prefer to spend my money on walls.”

The economic details make painfully enviable reading. The Tippings were a sound Quaker family with roots in the corn trade in Liverpool. In 1911, Henry inherited £250,000 from his brother. He then sold the family home in Kent, Brasted Place. It was advertised with 650 acres, a pub, a watermill, about 50 other houses in the village and plans for a new golf course. In 1912, it sold for a mere £8,000. Can any steady investor match the Brasted index across the period since the sale? In 2011, an owner of Brasted who had sat still, read Country Life and ignored everything in the FT except this section would be sitting on at least £40m, with a private golf course as well. Without undue risk or luck, has anyone matched this stunning performance by solid English property? Henry Tipping never married. When he died, he left his house and entire fortune to his special adviser, the head gardener who had cared for him in older age. In return, the gardener destroyed all Tipping’s private papers.

Henry Tipping in 1914

After selling up in Kent, Tipping moved to Monmouthshire in Wales. There, he designed, built and gardened a sequence of properties while also pursuing his architectural studies. He had the luck to coincide with a change of taste that we all now take for granted. In the Edwardian era, weekends at “second homes” in the country first became a British obsession. Country Life magazine fed this obsession and Tipping became the first great chronicler of the houses in which it was lived out. He is the founding father of this section of the FT’s ideals and his style raises my idea of a gardening columnist’s necessary expenses. He would travel to the properties in a chauffeur-driven Rolls-Royce. At Country Life, his editor was the acute Edward Hudson, master of formal Monday luncheons, and his photographer was the legendary AE Henson. A visit from Henson was an ordeal for houseowners. Henson would demand the necessaries for an amateur dark room on site, including empty bottles of gin and whisky. At 4.30pm, he expected his hosts to provide him with brown bread and butter sandwiches. They were rewarded with superb black-and-white photos of their home but the experience left them floundering. If I ever come to call, remember that from now on I will expect black cherry jam on the sandwiches.

Tipping had firm views on gardening and architectural style. Helena Gerrish displays and explains his various houses but they are fascinatingly ugly to my eye. Aptly, one of them has ended up as a conference centre for the British Steel Corporation. Tipping followed the Arts and Crafts style and had a clear grasp of the history behind it. He was building only with the most deeply thought principles but the windows of his houses, the mix of stone and timber and the vernacular tendency in their façades, send me running back to the Georgian manner. Even his garden pergolas of stone look remarkably chunky. Are we blind nowadays about these creations or were they always pastiches and disastrously middle class? Inside, perhaps they were eminently liveable but will they ever be valued again as Tipping expected? Is too much history an enemy of style?

I relish his views on gardening. He wrote gardening columns too but only for less than 25 years. He liked the pale early blue Aster thomsonii in big groups, a daisy whose merits I rediscovered only three years ago. He was a very early user of the fast-growing evergreen Lonicera nitida for hedging. He liked long beds of one thing, the “sedum walk” for autumn or the “lavender walk” for early July. He laid out an excellent long walk of yew, clipped at the top into symbols of field sports, cock pheasants alternating with foxes. He records that this scheme attained maturity in only 10 years. It deserves to be copied.

I am inspired by his attitude to older age. In his seventies, he moved again and set about making a big new garden in the stony Cotswolds. “Downsizing” was only for inhabitants of rabbit hutches. He was adamant that the answer to a shortened lifespan was to prepare and manure the ground thoroughly. We have forgotten his three-trench rule. He urged that a depth of three spits of earth should be dug out and replaced with richly manured compost before anything was planted in it. As a result, visitors were amazed by the very rapid growth of his final gardens, even on poor stony soil. When his rhododendrons flowered poorly and grew thinly, he gave them new life by heavy dressings of chicken manure. It still works wonders.

True to his upbringing, Tipping cared about social housing and support schemes throughout his life. I can see why Gerrish honours him as a founding father of country living. His articles and lectures matched the very fashion of the age in which he was active. Even now, those country magazines haunt urban imaginations from Thursday onwards. Tipping was always thoughtful. When war had trimmed spending, he insisted, ahead of his time, that the answer for gardeners was to plant less formally on “broken ground” and in open woodland and to use unusual trees and shrubs. Gerrish has revived both his memory and one of his gardens, High Glanau Manor in Monmouthshire, which she opens in the summer. It is a fine effort and I rally to her hero’s principles of landscaping – “to retain the grace and feeling of the wild, while adding the eclectic beauty of the cultured”. If the pull of the country catches you, remember Tipping’s words.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don't cut articles from and redistribute by email or post to the web.