Penelope Hobhouse - Queen of Spades
Long Reads 22.07.2018
Words Stephanie Donaldson
Photographs Sam Walton
She’s arguably had more influence on how our gardens look than anyone else – and Penelope Hobhouse has no intention of changing anything now.
There was a time when formal gardens were, well, terribly formal. Rather like a dinner suit, you could admire the crisp perfection, but you wouldn’t necessarily want to live in it. Today, formal gardens are in general much more relaxed affairs – there’s still the good underlying structure, the symmetry, the neat hedges and the topiary, but these are counterbalanced by a wonderful profusion of exuberant planting. This transformation is largely due to garden designer Penelope Hobhouse. She has had a huge influence on how our gardens look, in particular popularising the idea of dividing the outdoor space into ‘rooms’. And through her writing, she has helped us understand how we can use complementary and contrasting colour combinations to radically alter the mood in a garden. She has also created gardens of great beauty in locations around the world.
I’ve been in awe of Hobhouse from my earliest years as a garden writer and have never summoned up the courage to speak to her. Then, earlier this year when I heard her talk at the Garden Museum’s Literary Weekend, I decided the time had come to ditch the shrinking-violet persona and ask for an interview. She had a great story to tell and I wanted to hear it. Hobhouse is generally quite a private person, but as luck would have it, her near-neighbours are mutual friends who were able to smooth my path to her front door. Even better, they invited her to lunch so we were able to get to know one another around an outdoor table on a sunny September day. It was all very relaxing and enjoyable so that by the time Hobhouse and I struck off along the public footpath to her house, we were able to chat companionably and talk about her life in gardens.
Hobhouse grew up in Ulster in a beautiful park, but it was a home where there was little cash available for treats. Her childhood was clearly character forming – and if sibling rivalry is a spur to a successful career in later life, then she was destined to succeed. Far from being the indulged little sister, she was treated more as a serf by her two older brothers. While this meant that she didn’t like them very much at the time, it did make her extremely competitive and she tells me that she was never known to refuse a challenge. This included swimming in what Hobhouse describes as ‘a river sometimes polluted with dead animals’, an experience she credits with giving her lifelong immunity to most bugs. Other challenges marked her young life. When she was three her father died, and her mother was frequently away. As a result, she was largely brought up by the household staff (her two brothers were away at school). In retrospect, Hobhouse finds it extraordinary that, until 1939, there were servants when there was so little money for frivolous extras.
Nevertheless, she considers that it was a happy childhood: ‘I had a pony and lived a very free life,’ she tells me. ‘I played tennis and later at boarding school enjoyed other sports; they are all very physical – just like gardening.’Reaching the end of our walk along the footpath, we have a bit of a struggle with a barbed wire fence blocking our way, before crossing a bridge over the stream that runs alongside her garden and are rewarded by the iridescent flash of a kingfisher darting upstream. It is now two years since Hobhouse moved into her new home, tucked away in this deeply rural corner of Somerset. The garden, mainly lawn when she arrived, is now essentially a huge border with intersecting paths. It is already overflowing. We settle ourselves at the garden table and I ask how she first came to gardening. It seems that her future career was a journey of discovery rather than all being laid out before her from the beginning – rather like her garden designs. She left Ulster to study at Cambridge and met her first husband Paul Hobhouse. His family lived at Hadspen House in Somerset and after their wedding the couple moved into one of the houses on the estate, which is where she first started to dabble with gardening, but it wasn’t until 1968 when both her parents-in-law died in quick succession and they moved into the main house that Hobhouse’s full focus turned to gardens and gardening.
‘I was in my late 40s, full of energy, and the children were away at school,’ she tells me. ‘There were eight acres of gardens where little had been done for 30 years, a serious problem with bindweed – known as withy-wind in Somerset – and one gardener and me. There had been two cabbage-growing helpers, but they left within a week of my arrival.’ I think they must have seen the writing on the wall – the new gardener clearly had more on her mind than vegetable growing. Gradually she gardened her way out from the immediate surroundings of the house, first dealing with the weeds and learning from her farmer husband the use of weedkillers and the importance of good soil preparation – a lesson that has stayed with her ever since. Her first efforts consisted mainly of planting trees, shrubs and ground cover; ‘I didn’t do herbaceous back then, but I did read a book on ground cover by Graham Stuart Thomas and found it very useful.’ People rallied round to help, too, and became her mentors.‘I was introduced to the owner of Knightshayes and when I visited the garden I took a notebook and enthusiastically wrote down everything I liked and the head gardener was duly instructed to propagate them all for me.’ On another garden visit, to that of plantswoman Margery Fish, Hobhouse tells me, ‘She gave me a spade and told me to go and dig up anything I wanted!’
Hobhouse gained confidence and became more adventurous as her plant knowledge broadened. The Hadspen garden had a warm microclimate allowing much experimentation with tender plants. In a sheltered area around a rectangular water reservoir, she indulged in what she describes as ‘pure planting ecstasies’ with tropical-looking leaves mingling with the silvery-grey foliage of Mediterranean plants. Although Hobhouse considers the garden to have little regard for design, she did use shrubs to provide strong architectural shapes against the wall, an early pointer to her developing interest in the contrast between structural elements and profuse planting. I discover that it was her acquisition of an old farmhouse near Lucca in Italy in the 1970s that was the spur to a serious interest in garden design. ‘I learnt enough Italian to get by and drove out to Tuscany,’ she says. ‘Between bouts of sorting out the house for successive tenants, I would go to Siena and Florence and visit the great gardens of the area.’ She was able to put what she had learned into practice when she moved on to developing the walled garden at Hadspen. It was run as a plant nursery, but Hobhouse laid out a formal structure with hedges and espaliered apple trees to contain the planting. Then, having progressively worked her way to the further reaches of the garden – and with her children grown up – she decided that her future no longer lay at Hadspen House and in 1979 she left.
If Hadspen was Hobhouse’s apprenticeship, the next move established her reputation. She met Professor John Malins, another keen gardener, who became her second husband. He recognised her talents and greatly encouraged her developing careers both as a designer and a garden writer. They became National Trust tenants at Tintinhull House and Hobhouse set about restoring the somewhat neglected Italianate garden established by the former owner, Phyllis Reiss, in the 1930s. It was a garden she had loved long before she moved there and it was to greatly influence her later designs. ‘The Trust didn’t realise I knew nothing about perennials,’ she says, ‘but it was a fantastic place to learn about them. At the time the garden seemed to be a battleground between planting styles of the 1930s, 1940s and 1970s, and as far as I was concerned it made no sense to try to slavishly recreate any particular period.’ In particular, during the war in the 1940s, Mrs Reiss had been unable to buy ornamental plants because all production was concentrated on food. To get her own way and make the garden beautiful, Hobhouse would say to the Trust, ‘I knew her and she would want euphorbias and blue salvias. They didn’t realise that I had only met her twice!’
Hobhouse’s garden writing was also getting noticed: ‘I was asked to write a book about colour and this was the first of many.’ (My own well-thumbed copy of Colour in Your Garden has stood me in good stead over many years.) She was invited to go on lecture tours of America – ‘There was a 20-year period when the Americans wanted the expertise of British gardeners, and I was much in demand over there. I had a lot of lucky breaks – and became something of a workaholic. I made TV programmes including The Art & Practice of Gardening for an American network. Audrey Hepburn was the presenter,’ she says matter-of-factly, ‘and the two of us travelled around Europe visiting gardens. She told me that Tintinhull was her favourite of all the gardens we saw together.’ During this period Hobhouse used to say, ‘I’m not a designer, I’m a writer,’ but then it dawned on her that she could earn far more as a designer and that she could employ other people to carry out the technical side of her garden designs. ‘I had absorbed the principles of balance and proportion from Italian gardens, and I had confidence that I could do it.’ Penelope and John’s efforts at Tintinhull trebled the numbers of visitors to the garden, but Hobhouse is something of a maverick who found working for a large organisation quite tricky. She wasn’t keen on everything her predecessor had done – Mrs Reiss’s red and yellow border with blue delphiniums was definitely not to her taste – but when the Trust insisted, she found a way around it by obediently planting the delphiniums and then cutting down the stems before they could flower. Visitors weren’t immune from her critical eye either: ‘If they arrived wearing particular shades of blue I would give them green jackets so that they wouldn’t spoil other peoples’ photographs!’
One of the ways in which Hobhouse increased visitor numbers to the garden was by serving teas (always a winner with the visiting public). They installed a sink in the garage and on the days when Tintinhull was open she would move the car elsewhere while ladies from the village served tea and homemade cakes to raise funds for the village church. When the EU threatened to intervene with kitchen inspections and hairnets for every home baker, Hobhouse evaded bureaucratic interference by providing free cakes but requesting a donation. Happiness all around. While Penelope and John found satisfaction in restoring and renewing Tintinhull, they wanted their own home and began to plan their escape. ‘There was a chance to buy a ruined coach house and land at Bettiscombe near Beaminster in Dorset, but I had to go to Ireland and John was in the hospital having his knees done, so we lost it.’ A year later she followed up what had happened (nothing). Because it was in the depths of the recession the successful bidder was more than happy to sell to them and they were able to get to work on their new home. ‘We hadn’t yet moved in, but the house had reached a point where we were able to stay there overnight. A few weeks later John died suddenly. He was 77 and it was a great shock. It had never occurred to me that he might die,’ she says. ‘We had been together at Tintinhull for 14 years.’ The companionable life they had planned at Bettiscombe became a solitary one instead and at the age of 63, Hobhouse immersed herself in creating the garden from scratch.
Set in almost an acre and bisected by the house, there were, in fact, two separate gardens. On the north side, Hobhouse planted an orchard within a meadow to link harmoniously with the views of the Dorset hills. The inner walled garden to the south of the house was more formal, its layout much influenced by Tintinhull. ‘I designed it to make less work in years to come, filling it with many of my favourite structural plants and shrubs so that in time they would take over from the more labour-intensive perennial plants. But my carefully planned gardening future had to be revised when a debilitating attack of sciatica forced me to sell Bettiscombe and move nearer to my family.’ Despite losing John, Hobhouse says she was incredibly happy at Bettiscombe and describes it as ‘a magical place’. While making the garden she continued to write books, lecture and design gardens for clients. One of her most memorable commissions started with a call from America from a man asking her to come and look at his garden. Hobhouse told him she was far too busy, but he kept on calling, even trying to persuade her with a generous fee. Somewhat exasperated with his persistence she asked her son, ‘Have you heard of a man called Steve Jobs?’ Needless to say, she went to California and she tells me that she found him (contrary to many reports) extremely courteous and both fascinating and charming. ‘My one regret,’ she says, ‘is that I didn’t have a tape recorder with me for our breakfast meeting at a café in Palo Alto. He rollerbladed in through the doors, introduced himself, sat down and we then discussed the principles of design for the next couple of hours.’
Meanwhile, Hobhouse was becoming increasingly drawn to Islamic gardens. Her interest had been sparked sometime before when she was researching for her book The History of Gardening. While the rest of us may be content to follow our interest through visits to the Moorish gardens of the Mediterranean and the Moghul gardens of India, Hobhouse went back to the source and has made several visits to Iran (the most recent last year) to see what she considers to be the greatest of all gardens – those of Persia. Her book, The Gardens of Persia, reveals how immensely civilised and technologically advanced the Persians were at a stage when we Brits were still grubbing about for survival. In an arid land, they built beautiful enclosed gardens fed with water channelled from distant mountains. Fountains played, fragrant flowers perfumed the air and elegant pavilions were constructed from which to view the garden. Each was an earthly paradise, but also, for the believer, a taste of heaven to come in the afterlife. The gardens that survive bear testament to this, although they are now much degraded. ‘They are still wonderful but the replacement planting is often poor and the ill-trained gardeners have no feeling for their surroundings – in the middle of a wood you will find an inappropriate circular flowerbed filled with pansies. At the Bagh e Fin, one of the most beautiful of these early gardens, restoration has meant replacing a few cypresses and planting yet more pansies. It is a tragedy.’ But she tells me she is hopeful that the new president will have a greater cultural appreciation of what these ancient gardens represent. On a previous visit, she was told that part of the problem was that former President Ahmadinejad believed that the world was about to end and he saw no point in repairing old ruins.
Now in her 80s, Hobhouse no longer does any design work, although she still consults on a few projects and writes the odd book review. ‘There is something nice about being 83, although the aches and pains are boring,’ she says, without a trace of self-pity. ‘It provides me with the perfect excuse for not doing anything I don’t want to. And if my age isn’t sufficiently persuasive, I have a back-up in the shape of my elderly cat Baby who hates me going away.’As we sit in her garden, enveloped by the borders, she says, ‘This garden is just a collection of plants. I deliberately overplanted, filling it with the unusual and tender plants I love to grow. And I love the screening effect that this has created, it gives me a sense of enclosure and privacy.’ After a lifetime of exploring every aspect of garden design, Hobhouse has distilled it to its essence – a plant-filled sanctuary. I carry this wisdom away with me – along with a clump of Baltonia asteroidesshe uproots from a border – a perfect memento for this no-longer-shrinking violet.