Monday, December 3, 2012

Rosemary Verey: The Life and Lessons of a Legendary Gardener by Barbara Paul Robinson

Rosemary Verey was a British garden designer with a distinct style based on historic gardens of old. Her inventiveness was allowed full rein within the constraints of geometric patterns: the outline of the gardens was defined somewhat strictly and marked with box balls and clipped hedges, but within these boundaries a brilliant collection of perennials, shrubs, bulbs and herbs complemented one another and competed for space and gave the impression of an orderly chaos.

There was a moment in our [American] recent history when new homeowners and gardeners yearned for just such a profusion of structure, color, and character, and lionized anyone who could help them achieve it. Rosemary Verey was just such a one: a woman of strong opinions, she could teach those interested how to create memorable plant pictures suitable to specific conditions. But we learned as all artists soon do that success is ten percent inspiration and ninety percent perspiration. The labor-intensiveness of her most successful schemes makes one reassess the time commitment after enjoying the fruits of one’s labors for a few years.

Fortunately most of Verey’s books were available to me when I began my flirtation with gardening. She enriched my imagination and most of all encouraged boldness and a degree of daring (but no orange). Barbara Paul Robinson, the author of this Verey biography, reminds us of Verey’s oft-repeated remonstrance: “It is a sin to be dull.” Dull Verey was not, and she could evoke strong feelings in most people who touched her life or her work.

Verey’s gardens remind me a little of jazz musicians. A great and successful jazz musician (Branford Marsalis?) once said that great art is not completely improvised: it is creating something new within the constraints of an accepted form. I like the idea of constraints, because we all have them, and some do better than others when operating inside of them. And this is so for Verey. The gardens she created will always be lovely, but they won’t have her individual spark of genius without her.

Born in 1918, she lived a traditional middle class life until her children left home, and was in her forties when she began creating gardens around the house at Barnsley in the Cotswolds that her husband had inherited as the only son of a long line of clergymen. She began with garden designs unearthed in her historical researches, and began to riff on that, adding a profusion of sometimes new and complementary plants within the formal outline.

Verey had an outspoken and outgoing personality that was much prized and admired in America, though perhaps less so in Britain. She had opinions on everything, but her real focus was gardening in a particular style. And that is perhaps why her star has waned. What she brought to us was an obsession and said “you can do it, too.” We liked to think so, but alas, we could not. We hadn’t the time, the army of gardeners, the wealth, the vision, the dogged pertinacity.

Robinson the author shows us Verey the woman: whatever her flaws, they are presented within the context of very basic human needs for companionship, closeness, intimacy. This is a fascinating portrait of a woman working within the constraints of her own nature, excelling in some things while doing less well on others. The trajectory of her life gives us material for meditation in our own gardens.

You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores

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