Rosemary Verey, the Life and Lessons of a Legendary Gardener, Barbara Paul Robinson, David R. Godine, Publisher.
The English-style garden, complete with pastel palette and focal point, appeared stale and tired-looking, after the Second World War. It might have disappeared from our contemporary gardening lexicon were it not for the contribution of Rosemary Verey who strove to perpetuate its beauty and its charm.
Here is a passionate book that follows the career of a late-blooming garden designer; it also serves as an attestation that sometimes innate talent and perseverance can be a substitute for formal training.
An internationally renowned, self-taught, master gardener, Mrs. Verey wrote her first book at the age of 62; and published seventeen more in the following twenty years. However, it was her avid fans, which she cultivated throughout the USA, who treated her as a V.I.P. Not only did they accord her a celebrity status but also they were responsible for turning most of her books into best-sellers.
Although Mrs. Verey appeared outgoing and sociable, she was, at heart, a private person, even when she made entries into her diary. As a result, Ms. Robinson’s research, thorough and meticulous as it is [sixty-nine people were interviewed} has produced a fascinating chronicle of an influential gardener’s life and career, rather than a biographic narrative. Nevertheless, it is a very satisfying book.
The author also drew upon a personal relationship with her subject. Ms. Robinson, who is a successful New York City lawyer and a passionate gardener, had taken a sabbatical from her practice in order to study under Rosemary Verey’s supervision.
What drew this reviewer into the private world of a housewife – turned – designer was a poignant discovery of antiquated social norms that restricted and shaped the life of a talented women. Mrs. Verey was so gifted that had she been born into contem- porary society she might have become a lawyer or a banker, or even a professor of Economics. Instead, she became a traditional 1950’s wife and mother.
After her children were grown, and while she was contemplating a “second career”, Mrs. Verey decided to redesign the landscape surrounding her home, Barnsley House, an historic U.K. residence, belonging to her husband’s family. The success of that project would eventually catapult her into an international career as an authority on English-style gardens.
With encouragement from her scholarly husband, she began her formidable project by researching historic British gardens. That led to a realization that certain design elements were essential to the creation of beautiful landscapes. Up until that time, such elements had been excusive to large estates.
It did not take long for this gifted neophyte designer to learn how to adapt the feel and mood of these aristocratic grounds in order to recreate them on her modest-sized property. Later, when she became the doyen of the English garden to most Americans, one of her most admired talents was the ability to take imposing elements from larger, acclaimed gardens and interpret them for the small scale of the American backyard.
Dedication, perseverance, and hard work - combined with the eye of a mathematician – transformed Mrs. Verey from wife of an upper middle class gentleman into a world-renowned authority on English Gardens. Among her clients were the New York Botanical Garden, Sir Elton John, HRH Charles Prince of Wales, the late King Hussein of Jordan, and the Honorable Hilary Weston of Canada.
Adding to my enjoyment of this book is the way the author weaves several themes throughout the biography. One thread is the confirmation that beautiful English gardens require maintenance. Without it, they cannot perpetuate the vision of the designer. A second thread deals with the feeling of inadequacy experienced by some successful but self-taught designers when in the company of diploma-bearing professionals.
Another theme examines the role the client plays in developing a garden design. When planning the grandest of her projects, no matter how tenaciously she held to her opinions, Rosemary Verey wisely deferred to the whims of the homeowner.
Mrs. Verey’s influence upon me, as well as on many of my colleagues and clients, has been so pivotal that as soon as I found out about this book I added it to my must-read list.
In it I found comfort when I learned that the placement of a plant - as challenging as it might be for us today - was no less of a challenge for the world’s great authority on that subject. It is reassuring to discover that even the most talented among us sometimes struggle, as we do, in order to overcome obstacles.
Readers are in for a treat when they continue to the writer’s acknowledgments at the end of the book. Throughout Ms. Robinson’s manuscript, a secondary story accompanies the biography. It describes the special relationship between Rosemary Verey and her husband; how he continuously encouraged her to achieve her personal goals.
That narrative is echoed in the author’s revelation about the encouragement she received from her own husband so that she too might garden and eventually write this book. What a touching comparison this turns out to be when it creeps up on the reader as a delightful surprise ending.