The Life and Art of a Garden Designer
Until recently few people had ever heard the name of British garden designer Norah Bourke Lindsay (1873-1948). A gardener to the luminaries of the era, she was the first English female to travel to clients’ estates and physically direct plantings. However, Norah Lindsay seemed on the verge of being forever lost to history since she neither made landscape drawings nor published landscape design books. Now, through the extensive research of Wellesley author Allyson Hayward, readers are treated not only to a biography of a pioneer garden designer but also to a social, cultural, and historical perspective of life in England and the Continent during the period between the two world wars.
Hayward, an internationally acclaimed garden historian, lecturer, and author, has loved gardens and the art of gardening as far back as she can remember. As a child in the beautiful rural areas of central New York, she had the opportunity to experience the joys of horticulture and even planned her own private garden outside her childhood bedroom. This early fascination with gardening eventually led her to the Landscape Institute at Harvard University of which she is a graduate. While taking courses there, she happened upon a landscape history course that provided a brief introduction to Norah Lindsay. An essay for the class fired a passion for Norah’s unique style and the fascinating history of gardens and grand estates of England, and you might say the rest is history.
Norah Bourke Lindsay was born in Octacamund, India into a prominent English family. At the time of her birth, her father was stationed in India as Postmaster General and military secretary to his brother, Richard Southwell-Bourke, 6th Earl of Mayo, Viceroy and Governor-General of India. Norah inherited her father’s witty sense of humor; from her mother she inherited beauty, charm, and perhaps most importantly, an ability to make and sustain important social connections. As Norah moved into adulthood, she became the consummate hostess and mingled freely with the most influential political, social, and literary figures of the period. She vacationed with Edith Wharton; lunched with Winston Churchill; and counted Merle Oberon, Vivien Leigh, and Burgess Meredith among her friends. Her magnetic personality and lively conversations ensured that her large country home, Sutton Courtenay Manor, was constantly overflowing with excitement, intelligence, and beauty. Her lush personal gardens, where she first put her creative efforts to work, were often the outdoor setting of popular weekend gatherings characterized by non-stop entertainment.
All parties must eventually end, and in 1924, Norah ended one way of life and began yet another. At age 51 Norah was faced with an unhappy marriage (she and her husband Harry never actually divorced), few financial resources, and a manor house in constant need of repair. Norah instinctively turned to the thing that she did well—garden design. With the support of her friends as well as her mother’s connections, Norah began a career in garden design that continued to flourish for the rest of her life. Although Sutton Courtenay was her husband’s family home, Harry allowed Norah to continue to live there—with the stipulation that she keep the house in good repair, a provision that caused her a great deal of financial anxiety.
Norah Lindsay became an independent working woman, encouraged by her friend Frances, Lady Horner who suggested that she charge for her horticultural services rather than continuing to issue advice gratis. Norah’s projects, totaling more than 120 gardens, ranged from the grounds of manor houses in the English countryside to grand estates of nobility, to royal gardens on the Continent. Her client list, including members of Euro?pean royalty as well as American expatriates, reads like a Who’s Who of the era: Nancy and Waldorf Astor; Prince Paul of Yugoslavia; Edward, Prince of Wales; Consuelo Vanderbilt Balsan of France; and Audrey and Marshall Field, III, to name a sample.
Though largely self-trained, Norah was influenced by a combination of styles and techniques. She turned to the writings of Gertrude Jekyll and William Robinson for validation, all the while working to add her own unique perspective to their rules of landscape design. On trips to France and Italy, Norah gained firsthand knowledge of the most outstanding gardens in the world. However, she felt that visits to Notcutts and Hillier, two well-known English nurseries, provided her most important education. On visits to these two nurseries she spent hours quizzing the nurserymen and challenging herself to master the right environment for each type of plant. Under the tutelage of these experts, Norah added grassroots training to her innate artistic sense of scale, balance, and proportion. These “pilgrimages,” as she referred to the trips, formed the foundation of her design skills.
Much of Hayward’s historical information was gained from her meticulous reading of Norah Lindsay’s letters to family and friends. Norah was a prolific letter writer, and her witty writing style reveals the drama of the times in which she lived. Her letters, like her gardens, were a total experience of the senses, filled with the emotion and abundance in which Norah thrived. Norah knew how to ‘paint with plants,’ and her letters are a reflection of her gardening style—‘an overall effect of thoughtless abundance and a pleasurable experience.’ With influence from Gertrude Jekyll’s theories, Norah favored elaborate color but opted to keep starkly contrasting colors apart. Instead, she excelled in the use of delicate variations of shade, or ton sur ton. With Norah, art mimicked life, or was it the other way around? In any case, she gardened, wrote, and lived with great abandon. She favored overflowing herbaceous borders accented with structured plantings of yews, box, and other conifers, often clipped into topiary. Her trademark gardens combined formal principles of Italian design with an informal use of plants. The combination of these two factors produced gardens with the look of casual spontaneity, a trademark of Norah’s own spirit. In fact, she compared the free-growing flowers to her own lifestyle—‘without restraint or restrictive boundaries.’
Norah Lindsay’s letters reveal that although she managed to keep up the appearance of being ‘a social butterfly, a gadfly,’ she actually worked extremely hard at her new career. Although evenings might be spent dining with her clients, at dawn she was working side by side with their gardeners. Using handwritten plans, she placed tags on sticks and positioned them exactly where she wanted each plant to be placed. Despite her hard work, Norah made very little money; along with free lodging at the estates of her employers, she received approximately five pounds for one professional day’s work. To make matters worse, after Hitler invaded Poland in 1939, life for Norah’s friends and clients became more difficult. As the war intensified, various estates began to be used as military camps or schools, and Norah continued to lose clients. Despite her small earnings, she continued her landscape design career for almost a quarter of a century, up until about six months before her death in 1948.
In chronicling the life of Norah Lindsay, Allyson Hayward began her ten years of research by physically retracing Norah’s steps. Hayward made numerous trips to England, developed charts and timelines of each garden she visited, and pieced together fascinating information from Norah’s letters. She was welcomed by Norah’s relatives as well as current owners of some of the estates where Norah gardened. She visited county record offices in England to search through public archives for more details. Through the use of engaging text and more than 300 photographs, Hayward’s book pays tribute to Norah Lindsay as an outstanding landscape designer and gives a fresh perspective of the historically significant period in which lived. As written in Norah’s obituary in The London Times, ‘Above all she was a gardener. Laying out and planting were her career. When her wit and charm are forgotten, her gardens in England, France, Belgium, and Italy will remain as a permanent memorial to one whose mastery in that art amounted to genius.’
A number of the properties where Norah Lindsay once gardened or consulted are now open to the public through the National Trust. Some of these properties are Hidcote Manor, Clivedon, Mottisfort Abbey, Chirk Castle, and Blickling Hall. Additional estates where she worked in the 1930’s and 1940’s are currently in other forms of public ownership. These properties include Port Lympne, Serre de la Madone, and Trent Park. For more information on these properties and on Norah Lindsay, see www.norahlindsay.com.
Allyson Hayward was awarded a Gold Medal by the Massachusetts Horticultural Society in 2003 for her work in promoting New England’s garden history. She lives in Wellesley with her husband, three dogs, and two cats named Norah and Harry.