I have thoroughly enjoyed visiting these gardens. As any keen gardener will know the opportunity to snoop around someone else’s garden is not to be missed. In the process I can only hope that I have managed to convey something of what makes them so special. I have attempted to use language in the same way that Jekyll uses plants so ‘that they shall form beautiful pictures’, but when faced with the profound natural beauty of these gardens words have often fallen short. I can only urge you to go for yourselves and experience them in their glorious flesh. Gardens are to be enjoyed sensually. And beyond the five senses is a sense of time in the garden— a unity between your experience and that of those who first created and inhabited them. Witnessing the garden in the instantaneous moment as Gertrude Jekyll, Vita Sackville-West and Barbara Hepworth once did brings us a step closer to understanding the role they played in their lives as artists.
One unexpected discovery on this journey has been the “Britishness” that has coursed through the veins of every one of these gardens and every one of their creators. Britain is without doubt a nation of gardeners. Here it is an almost universal skill and it is interesting that to these three artists gardening was just another string to their bow. Even Jekyll began her life as a painter and Vita would have balked at the idea of being remembered as a gardener and not a poet. It is often overlooked that it is amateur women who have been the innovators of British horticulture over the past century.
There are many more equally intriguing women of the late nineteenth and twentieth century, whether artists or not, who have shared this special relationship with their gardens, but could not be contained within this piece. I cannot refrain from offering you the names of the following: Vanessa Bell, Rowena Cade, Margery Fish, Valerie Finnis and the mysterious Ladies of Llangollen, (two aristocratic Irish spinsters who in 1790 eloped from their families to make a Gothic garden together in Wales). I am particularly indebted to the figure of Elizabeth Von Arnim who in her book Elizabeth and Her German Garden (1898) was perhaps the first to recognise the garden as a place of liberation. Her infectious love of gardening is a spirit which runs through all three of my women’s lives and which I hope is felt by you, the reader.