Great British garden-makers: Rosemary Verey

Rosemary Verey, 1918-2001

As a garden-maker, Rosemary Verey was entirely self-taught. There was no master plan at her home, Barnsley House, and she admitted that ‘initially I knew very little about design’, so the garden just evolved. It had three outstanding features: the laburnum walk, the ornamental kitchen garden and a very pretty little knot garden that Mrs Verey developed from 17th-century patterns.

Fame came very suddenly with the publication in 1980 of Mrs Verey’s first book, The Englishwoman’s Garden, co-authored with her neighbour Alvilde Lees-Milne. It took the form of 36 essays contributed by well-to-do, upper-class women about their gardens, and was a runaway

The descriptions were charming, informative, inspir-ational and illustrated by colour photographs on every page. It showed what could be done by intelligent, energetic women who were passionate about gardening, and tipped the market for garden books away from how-to-do-it manuals for horny-handed chaps.

On the cover was a picture of Mrs Verey’s laburnum walk, underplanted with purple alliums, in all its late-May glory. It was an iconic photograph, perhaps the single most influential garden view of all time. There were many elements to Mrs Verey’s success. One was her insistence on creative copying. She showed people how to take a good idea from a large, established garden and scale it down to a manageable size; the laburnum walk that she copied from Bodnant was perhaps the most famous example at Barnsley.

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Mrs Verey also showed how to take an idea or pattern (facing page, far right) from the early days of gardening and adapt it to modern conditions. Her potager was a small but formal kitchen garden on the French Renaissance model, with quincunxes of clipped box and trained fruit trees, as well as seasonal vegetables, herbs and salads.

The 17th-century horticulturist William Lawson inspired her to interplant it with ‘an abundance of roses and lavender’ to ‘yield much profit, and comfort to the senses’. And there were seats and arbours from which to contemplate the ever-changing plantings. Visitors were enchanted, and realised that there was much they could do by reading, visiting gardens and contemplating the
possibilities for their own patch.

Mrs Verey’s style of gardening was firmly rooted in the Edward-ian era of Arts-and-Crafts layouts. The plantings, too, were proudly nostalgic and thickly layered; she packed in the plants, all carefully chosen for their harmonious colour-effects, so that the same patch of ground produced feature after feature for months on end. The combinations that Mrs Verey promoted, of vistas and colour plantings, nostalgic design and romantic planting, came to dominate English gardens in the 1980s and 1990s.

Mrs Verey reaped the rewards of fame. Her garden-visitor numbers soared to 40,000 a year, and she quickly expanded her little nursery to sell them lots of plants. In 1994, she was awarded the Garden Writers’ Guild lifetime achievement award. She received the OBE in 1996 and, in 1999, the RHS’s highest accolade, the Victoria Medal of Honour.

The life and times

1918 Rosemary Isabel Baird Sandilands was born at Gillingham in Kent on December 21, 1918, the daughter of an officer in the Royal Marines.
1930s She went to University College, London, to read Mathematics and Economics, but left without taking her degree to marry David Verey in 1939. Mrs Verey was kept busy for many years thereafter running the house and bringing up their four children.
1950s In 1951, Mrs Verey’s parents-in-law made over their house to their son. Barnsley House was
a handsome old rectory built of Cotswold stone. Mr Verey was an architect and a historian of architecture and, some years after taking over, he decided that more should be done to provide a proper garden setting for the house. He arranged for the renowned garden designer Percy Cane to visit and give his advice.
1960s It was at this point that Mrs Verey decided that she could lay out the garden herself and, in fact, the only idea she took from Cane was that the design should include as many long vistas
as possible. Shortly afterwards, her son gave her a subscription to the RHS, and Russell Page published The Education of a Gardener, the guide for thousands of good garden-makers. She never looked back.
1980s Mrs Verey’s first book, The Englishwoman’s Garden, appeared in 1980, launching her career as a garden-writer and designer. She travelled frequently to America, where she was immensely popular on the lecture circuit. The first book was followed by perhaps a dozen more in the 1980s and 1990s. Mrs Verey adored the travel, meeting new people and seeing new places. In 1988, Barnsley House won the Historic Houses Association/Christie’s Garden of the Year Award-the ultimate mark of excellence.
1990s Mrs Verey was a good ambassador for the style of English gardening that she championed in her lectures and books. Her masterpiece was Rosemary Verey’s Making of a Garden, 1996 (below), in which she told the story of how she made and maintained her garden at Barnsley.
Text and pictures showed her readers exactly how to get the most out of a small space without any loss of the classic English style that she espoused. She was also asked to design gardens for the great and good. Her clients included Sir Elton John at Woodside, Princess Michael of Kent at Nether Lypiatt, the Marquess of Bute at Mount Stuart, the trustees of the New York Botanical Garden, and, above all, The Prince of Wales at Highgrove. The Prince observed: ‘Mrs Verey makes gardening seem the easiest and most natural thing in the world.’
2001 Mrs Verey died at Cheltenham on May 31.