From my regular series of Design Icons written for ABC RN Blueprint. You can find others on my Blueprint and Podcasts pages.
Lawrence Johnston was broadcast on 9th October 2021. You can listen to the audio here.
Garden design can seem ephemeral with gardens always changing and liable to disappear if not properly maintained. But great gardens are every bit as influential as great buildings. Those who created them are often equally significant. Like Lawrence Johnston. His story is of indulgence and privilege, certainly, but it’s also about a singular vision that left the world with two remarkable gardens that had a huge influence on garden design.
Johnston was born in Paris in 1871 to a wealthy American couple who divorced when he was a boy. While his father returned to America, Lawrence lived with his mother, Gertrude. He became a naturalised British subject in 1900 and joined the Army, fighting in both the Boer and the First World wars. He was already interested in plants but when his mother bought a beautiful old house in the Cotswolds in 1907, Johnston was able to indulge his passion and create a new ten-acre garden. At Hidcote Manor Johnston put into practice new ideas of the time, most notably that of garden rooms, with areas separated from each other by clipped hedges or walls. We’re very familiar with that concept now, and Hidcote is divided into fifteen such areas, ranging from intimate spaces crammed with flowers and encircled by topiary to an enclosed lawn in which a single gateway is the focus. It’s a place of contrast, and almost overwhelming in its detail. Its fame spread after an article in Country Life was published in 1930.
The gardener is often a restless soul and Johnston went on expeditions to bring back rare species from remote areas of China and South America. He also, in 1924, bought an old farmhouse called Serre de la Madone, just outside Menton on the French Riviera, where he created a garden that is, if anything, superior to Hidcote. It’s a more cerebral place, less divided than Hidcote, although its steeply sloping terraced site still leads you slowly through its different spaces. The centrepiece is a double pool with umbrella pines that tower above it, creating a sense of a huge outdoor room: a staggering space that was sadly diminished when lightning took out some of the trees. What this garden also did was highlight Johnston’s painterly eye, with drifts of blue agapanthus enlivened by vivid splashes of colour from orange strelitzias and even red from our own Illawarra Flame Tree. It’s both enchanting and ethereal, and it was here that Johnston spent most of his time after gifting Hidcote to the National Trust in 1948.
Johnston created two gardens that are marvels for anyone with the least interest in colour, form, plant biology and garden structure. Landscape design has become more important as we live in denser communities with smaller gardens, but the move has been to more architectural spaces in which plants have often become secondary. What Johnston’s designs continue to express is how we can balance both, creating spaces that please both the eye and the intellect, inspiring generations who may not have his resources but can take away elements and keep the gardened space alive.