Rosemary Verey: The Life and Lessons of a Legendary Gardener

rosemary_verey_book_cover.jpgRosemary Verey: the Life and Lessons of a Legendary Gardener

Barbara Paul Robinson (David R. Godine (2012))

Reviewed by Maureen Horn, Mass Hort Librarian

Note: Barbara Paul Robinson will speak here, as part of the Library's Author Series, on Thursday, January 31, 2013, from 3:30 to 5:00.

Many of the best English garden designers and writers are little more than names outside of the United Kingdom. Either their work is not associated with the 'great' gardens that have achieved legendary status on both sides of the Atlantic, or else their design esthetic is uniquely British and somehow doesn't 'translate' to America.

Rosemary Verey is the rare combination of designer whose legacy is well established on two continents. Moreover, until shortly before her death in 2001 at 82, she was still designing, still lecturing and still inspiring. And, in Rosemary Verey: the Life and Lessons of a Legendary Gardener, Barbara Paul Robinson has given us a wonderful and personal portrait of an artist.

Robinson is uniquely qualified to write about Verey. She took a sabbatical from her New York law firm to serve as a middle-aged intern at Verey's famous Barnsley estate. The story of Rosemary, as she is called throughout the book, is enlivened by personal recollections of many English gardening luminaries who knew and worked with her during the second half of her life. Robinson's own story of coming to a serious interest in gardening only in middle age creates a bond between subject and biographer.

The outlines of Verey's life are well known. An early marriage meant no university degree. An accident caused her a lifetime of physical discomfort. Verey foreswore financial comfort because she discovered she had a genius for gardening.

Her life is also the story of reaching out and pulling into her orbit most of the people whom she encountered. With moving admiration, Robinson gives us the picture of an idyllic marriage, in which Rosemary's husband, David, who called himself a "failed architect", contributed the architectural features and historical understanding of the gardens which she filed with expert and memorable color combinations. The story of his death and the difficulties of changing home and career direction is movingly told.

Verey was a natural teacher, and the book is filled with remembrances of what her interns, collaborators and employers learned from her. But this is no hagiography: the stories are salted and peppered with memories of clashes and feuds. Some of the differences were professional, because of disagreements over garden design, but others came over pique at perceived slights in showing enough appreciation for Verey.

Appreciation for her work was boosted by the output of seventeen major books on gardening. Robinson does a terrific job of summarizing them so a reader can use Rosemary Verey as a guide to studying and following her theories. Two people who recognized the worth of her reputation were Prince Charles and Elton John, and an entertaining section of the book is dedicated to her interaction with them. The book is also replete with accounts of the plants and designs she used in the gardens of other renowned clients.

A non-gardener can also relate, as an insight into how a person can accomplish goals through decisiveness and never wasting time. Verey wanted to be remembered as great English gardener, and for awhile she found it hard to break into an overcrowded field. Instead, after a few trips to America, she discovered that she loved the people, the culture and the gardening challenges imposed by a harsher climate. The awards from America came pouring in, including the 1998 honor of the George Robert White Gold Medal from the Massachusetts Horticultural Society.

The list of acknowledgements is noteworthy and confirms the impression that the biographer took the time to interview people who really knew her subject. Because she did, Rosemary Verey is a full unfolding of a real person, even more revealing than many memoirs.