Norah Lindsay, the Life and Art of a Garden Designer

When the beau monde of between-the-wars Britain required audacious herbaceous borders, they summoned not the stout, plain Gertrude Jekyll, but the amusing and aristocratic Norah Bourke Lindsay. Between 1920 and 1944 the impecunious Norah Lindsay fluttered about from York to Devon and from England to France (with side trips to Yugoslavia and Rome), advising and overseeing the planting of the gardens of the titled and illustrious. Lindsay’s style of directing-the-head-gardener design was in sharp contrast to that of her, until-now, more celebrated contemporary who stuck close to her beloved Munstead Wood from where she sent out her finely detailed plans. Unlike Jekyll, who wrote prolifically on gardening topics, Norah mainly confined her writing to copious and sprightly letters to her close circle of friends.

Period Country Life photographs and some family- and client-owned archival images provide the surviving documentation of Norah’s work. Only a handful of her gardens have either partially survived (Cliveden in Berkshire, Mottisfont Abbey in Hampshire, Port Lympne in Kent) or been recently restored (Blickling Hall in Norfolk). What has lived on is a plethora of primary biographical material, not the least of which are Norah’s journalistic letters. Presumably because of this and because Norah worked for and socialized with some of the most notable names of the time, Allyson Hayward made the decision to go the biographical route rather than garden analysis. The handsome, black-and-white photographs of such prime commissions as Waldorf and Nancy Astor’s Cliveden and Philip Sassoon’s Port Lympne convey, to some degree, the luxury and finesse of Lindsay’s plantings.

The author, who formerly chaired the now-defunct New England Garden History Society, does not neglect to impart, through direct quotation or otherwise, the peripatetic Lindsay’s design principles. The quixotic plant artist favored bold textural contrasts, variety, and well-defined “patches,” all organized in a formal, “Italianate” manner. The captions for the photographs sometimes point out flowers and color combinations.

Pictorial passages from Norah’s letters illustrate her style in both writing and planting. In a typical outpouring, in this instance to her favorite, the politician and immensely wealthy heir Philip Sassoon, she gushes, “It’s a pity you cannot see my garden now—it is a lesson in beauty and the lilies—regalias, ostrowskias, madonnas all wonderful—now at its height and so lovely I could put my arms around it . . .” Even so, the regalias and the ostrowskias seem much less alive than the Windsors and the Cavendish-Bentincks, David Niven and his wife Prim, and “Emerald” Cunard (formerly Maud Burke of San Francisco). The insights into the character of Lawrence (“Johnny”) Johnston of Hidcote fame and her concept of his missteps at his Riviera retreat Serre de La Madone are far more involving than the poppy selected for the borders at Sassoon’s Trent. The glimpses of Edith Wharton and Charles de Noailles gardening at their neighboring estates on the French Riviera are more illuminating than any description of the color combinations at Lindsay’s own Medieval home, Sutton Courtenay.

After reading Norah Lindsay: The Life and Art of a Garden Designer, you will not understand the exact nature of Norah’s garden legacy or even whether she was, in that sphere, all that original. You will, however, have a colorful sense of her world, an insight aided by a glossary of some 300 of Norah’s “circle of friends,” from Annie Denton, her cook and mother of her devoted personal maid Daisy, to Thomas Evelyn Scott-Ellis, 8th Baron Howard de Walden, writer, sportsman, arts patron, and lessee of Chirk Castle. You may never discern the difference between Dierama, Bocconia, and Ceratostigma willmottianum here, but you will soon be able to identify Daisy Fellowes as “society beauty and writer” and the progeny of a Singer Sewing heiress and the 3rd Duc Decazes. Altogether this has to be one of the best social guides to early twentieth-century England, and perhaps the only one with the added bonus of a hundred ravishing views of borders and parterres.

Phoebe Cutler, garden historian
San Francisco, California