Lawrence Johnston in Hidcote
PUBLISHED: 10:48 05 January 2011 | UPDATED: 14:58 20 February 2013
The 'Major' saw the Cotswold terrain of his home as a natural canvas upon which he could create masterpieces by June Lewis
Once you have been here you can never be the same again,' said a visitor of Hidcote. And there are visitors aplenty - in fact, some 150,000 of them each year make their way to the little hamlet of Hidcote Bartrim on the north Cotswold hilltop to be touched by the magic of Hidcote Manor Garden which celebrated its centenary this year. Such a successive pilgrimage paying homage to the realisation of his dream, one would think, would have pleased its creator who turned the windswept, quite hostile site with little more than a rather squat Lebanon cedar and a clump of beech trees in a featureless landscape to become internationally famous as one of the most influential gardens in England. But in its early formative years, after a couple of decades of dedicated, bordering on the obsessive, commitment to developing the Manor garden which had matured enough to excite the leading garden designers of the day, strangers and publicity were not welcome. Lawrence Johnston was a very private man and Hidcote was his private home which he shared with his mother, a wealthy twice widowed American, who bought the Hidcote estate of 280 acres (113 hectares) in 1907 and played out her role as lady or the manor, keeping an eye on parochial affairs in general and her son's 'alarming' expenditure on creating the garden in particular.
Lawrence Johnston has remained a somewhat enigmatic figure and it is only recently that research has progressed enough to draw up some kind of picture of the man behind the garden which has inspired and delighted generations of gardeners, and just about anyone who has an appreciate eye for design and colour and the use of all things green and growing to create an architectural structure to encompass it all. Some speculation has suggested that he did, in fact, have some architectural training - it was the era of garden and landscape architects, and the 'suite of rooms' for which Hidcote is justifiably and historically famous were already built and 'furnished' within the first few years, verified by a series of photographs of 1913.
The Major, as Lawrence Johnston liked to be called - retaining the military title he was accorded from his services in the Boer War, and later in World War I, when he was wounded and gassed - added to his persona of Englishness, which he adopted in dress and manner following his late graduation in History from Trinity College, Cambridge, and his naturalization as a British citizen. His avid interest in horticulture seems to have stemmed from some inherent artistic talent rather than from any formal training: his membership of the exclusive Garden Society, which was by invitation only, was accorded strictly to the aristocrats who gardened expansively on their estates - although his social standing would have prohibited him from doing manual and menial tasks in the garden itself.
Lawrence Johnston obviously saw the Cotswold terrain of his home as a natural canvas upon which he could create living masterpieces, using plant life as an artist uses paints on his palette. Like the majority of classic artists, too, Johnston was ever conscious of the sky and the skyline - and so many of the most breathtaking compositions at Hidcote are structured to lead the eye to a distant perspective ever upward to incorporate the changing skyscape, such as the avenue in the Long Walk which seems to give a glimpse of the edge of the world as it frames the northern sky in the distance. He used his more traditional artist's talents to paint a pair of pictures of the famous Red Borders - a daring and hugely successful planting scheme, of which he must have been duly satisfied as he hung them each side of his bed. He frescoed the wall of the thatched house by the bathing pool, and for his friends at neighbouring Kiftsgate he painted the ceiling and frieze round the wall of their largest room in the Italian style. There is an echo of Italian garden design to be traced in the layout of the 'suite of rooms' which lead one into another, while the box-edged parterre of intricate design and tall hedge screens show some French influence; back to the Cotswold landscape roots, Johnston replicated the fulsome flower-filled borders of the English cottage garden, as though those of the hamlet tumbled into the manorial grounds and link immediately with the natural environment.
With his English garden firmly rooted, albeit still at that time in its distinctive skeletal form, Johnston sought a sunnier clime in which to spend his winter months and set about creating another dream garden for his retreat at Serre de la Madone on the French Riveria in the early 1920s under the expert care and instruction of one of his English gardeners.
It is the Hidcote gardeners, with their feet and hands in the soil and Johnston's visions in their head and a mutual love of plants, with enthusiasm and talent to weave the magic into a tangible reality, that comes through the whole story of Hidcote and its French gardens. Hidcote's first head gardener was appointed in 1922; Frank Adams had a first class horticultural pedigree, including his job as a flower decorator at Windsor Castle. His team not only supported him in his work but were enthusiastic about the whole project, one remembered his time at Hidcote as 'The most exciting time of my career'.
The contribution made by Henry Lloyd, the first head gardener at Serre de la Madone, was acknowledged by Lawrence Johnston by a memorial table on one of the stone clematis pillars in the grounds of the Provencal-type farmhouse. The importance of the garden created by Johnston was recognised by the Ministry for Culture in Paris who declared it a monument historique - the first time the title had been conferred on a French garden in its own right, and the salvation of the estate which had been sold off following Johnston's death for potential building development. Now in the care of the Conservatoire du Littoral, Serra de la Madone has been lovingly restored to its former glory and open to visitors.
Opening to visitors 'spoils the pleasure of a garden, which should be a place of repose and to get away from the world', complained Johnston on his last visit to his beloved Hidcote following its acquisition by the National Trust, which he was persuaded to do in 1948 to ensure the garden's future. It was the very first garden to be brought into the Trust's custody, and millions of people from all corners of the globe will have cause to be grateful for that foresight, so that they may, too, experience and enjoy the very special peace and tranquillity, inspiration and magic that the garden holds.
Again, it is back to the gardening folk - and Hidcote Manor's Head Gardener, Glyn Jones and volunteer Len Potter have commemorated the centenary of Hidcote by a sponsored marathon cycle trip, raising funds for the Trust's plans to restore the garden to the glory of its heyday.
On arriving back in mid-September after their 1,000 mile cycle ride from the sister garden at Serra de la Madone in the South of France to Hidcote in the North Cotswolds, Glyn said, 'It's great to be back, it was a trip of a lifetime and the money we raised will now go to help support the restoration work in the garden at Hidcote'.
Thanks to the dedicated research of the Trust's Garden Historian and the response to a public appeal to visitors, two of the enigmatic 'Man behind the Garden' diaries and old photographs have come to light - an enormous help in piecing together just how his dream garden was in reality several generations ago. With the talent and dedication to the project that is now Hidcote's legacy, today's gardeners will ensure that this unique garden will continue to hold its magic throughout all seasons in our horticultural heritage.
The Garden at Hidcote by Fred Whitsey is published by Frances Lincoln Ltd