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In praise of ‘Four Hedges’

Posted on March 9, 2017

Sitting at home last weekend watching the driving rain and the wind throwing everything around including the felting on my hen coop roof – a decisive prod to replace it this spring, reminded me of the  old adage about March, ‘…comes in like a lion and  goes out like a lamb’. It certainly came in like a lion this year. But I’d chopped enough wood  for the fire and it seemed like a final opportunity to read about gardens rather than work in one. And what a treat in store to read and look at.

Last summer I was nosing round the book fair in the Bristol Passenger Shed – dozens of stalls all incredibly diverse in their offers, and came across one selling the  library of the late Enid Marx, wood engraver and ‘pattern maker’ extraordinaire.  She died in 1998 and she gifted her work and library to the V&A; with the generous caveat that they could sell off those parts of her library they didn’t want (the archive is now housed at Compton Verney, in Warwickshire). A bookseller had picked up all those parts of the library and had them for sale. Amongst the many treasures was Clare Leighton’s book ‘Four Hedges; a gardeners chronicle’. Published in 1935 by Victor Gollancz, Clare was herself a remarkable wood engraver and writer. I snapped up the book, first edition, Enid Marx’s copy (!) and quite well-thumbed, battered even – with various personalised additions including a couple of Clare Leighton obits (she died in 1989), a hand designed ‘happy new year’ bookmark, and various annotations. Clearly a book that meant something its owner.

Reading it, its not hard to see why. ‘Four Hedges’ is a large format book which chronicles Clare and her partner Noel’s work on their garden near Princes Risborough in the Chilterns. It is divided into twelve chapters  one for each month and  starts in the Spring  running April to March. Its a diary and series of reflections on the joys and sorrows of gardening, and the specific challenges of a garden  ‘..perched on a slope of the Chiltern Hills, exposed  to every wind that blows’. As she puts it  ‘Dig into it just one spit and you reach as it were, a solid cement foundation. One might be hacking at the white cliff of Dover.’ But not only has she produced a wonderful chronicle of the garden,  but no less than 86 absolutely beautiful wood engravings. No wonder the book is still in print.

Being early March I turned to that chapter to see how she felt about the  weather and gardening while I was slacking in front of a log fire. Appropriately she starts by saying, ‘We have just visited some friends in a sheltered garden in Oxfordshire. As we went in at the gate we moved forward fully a month. Here were flowers  in full blossoming: anenomes, daffodils, scylla, cyclamen and hepaticas clustered warm and still. I come back to our garden full of apologies to our struggling wind blown buds.’ But not to be put off she re-frames the experience; ‘Perhaps we are after all to be envied for the lateness of our seasons. Is it not like the privilege of hearing over again  music that has come to its end? I have had the pleasure of seeing spring flowers  in our friends garden  and now I can travel back in time  and watch the annual unfolding of buds.’ It reminds me of my trip to Iceland in 2013, visiting the Botanic Gardens in Akureyri on the north coast of that island in late July, and finding all the flowers of spring and  early summer flowering in profusion. Joyous and dislocating at the same time.

Winter, as we know is a  time for poring over seed and bulb catalogues, fantasizing about the wonders of the garden in the spring and summer and spending too much money.  Strange to say Clare Leighton is no different.  January includes a confession that brings a rush of empathy, ‘It is a terrible weakness to take as much pleasure as we do  in bulb and tree and seed catalogues. Bulb catalogues, especially are wonderful ‘dope’. Does one think that the world is wicked, or foolish, or falling to bits, then half an hour with a bulb catalogue will cure one of all this nonsense.’ True enough,  but lets not take this too literally. She was writing in the mid 1930’s, and we know that decade didn’t end well. But to happier moments; the thunderstorm that brought down all the windfall apples in September, the opportunities to give away plants, and the joy and wonderment of  the abundance of self sown seedlings. How did they get so far from the mother plant?

All gardeners have artistic sensibility. The plants and flowers are their palette, the earth, rocks and walls their canvass, and the resulting garden, the finished article. Like with so many an artist the work can be endlessly revised and  re-imagined. Clare Leighton does this in her garden, but for us that garden lives on in both her prose and even more importantly, her pictures. They were woodcuts that inspired Enid Marx, and its not difficult to see why.