I downloaded a sample of Stephen Anderton’s book Christopher Lloyd His Life at Great Dixter to the Kindle, requested it from the library and once I’d got it, read it within twenty four hours, it was so interesting. I’ve admired Christo’s writing for donkey’s years but I had another, more prurient reason for wanting to read it; I’d been told that Fergus Garrett didn’t like it. Fergus was Christopher Lloyd’s head gardener and best friend, so I was curious to see what he found objectionable, especially as Christo had asked Stephen Anderton to be his biographer. I can see Fergus’s point because by the end of the book I found I liked Christo less than I had before, without admiring his work any less.
This is not just a biography but the story of a family and a house. In 1910 Nathaniel Lloyd, a successful businessman, bought Dixter near Northiam in Sussex with his much younger wife, Daisy. The house was a wreck and Nathaniel had it remodelled by Lutyens, who also laid out the garden plan, little changed today. Daisy then set about creating the perfect life there, with six children to complete the picture. She was an extraordinary woman, ‘dangerous’ according to one of her sons. She dressed always in dirndl skirts or in Puritan dress, to honour her ancestor Oliver Cromwell. The children were brought up to think that Mummy, Daddy and the Dixter, i.e. her way of doing things, were always right. As the youngest child, Christo was the one who failed to escape her smothering possessiveness but it seemed a willing thraldom. They lived together until she died in his arms in 1972. She was ninety two and had still been running Christo’s bath for him until her final illness. Weird? Yes indeed as was much about the family. Death and illness for instance, were ignored as much as possible, however tragic the circumstances. Stephen Anderton sums up the Lloyd attitude: ‘Death. Get over it!’ There was something Enid Blyton-ish about Daisy’s refusal to dwell on unpleasant things and her attempts to make other people conform to her standards. She was a simply terrible mother-in-law. All his life Christo had a horror of nostalgia and sentimentality, inherited from his mother.
Christo was sent to prep school, then Rugby. An unsporty boy, interested only in English, music and wildlife of all kinds, he was not happy at school. He then went up to Cambridge to read modern languages before being called up for undistinguished war service. (His elder brother Patrick was a brilliant career soldier who was killed in the 1950s.) Wherever he went, his mother kept up a furious correspondence (as she did with all her children) and sent him weekly boxes of flowers, describing in detail all the plants and how they were doing at Dixter. After the war he studied horticulture at Wye College and became an assistant lecturer there for a while. He then returned to Dixter and stayed there for the rest of his life. The garden was his life’s project and his laboratory; for over twenty years his mother was his collaborator.
Stephen Anderton divides the book into ‘before and after Daisy’ sections, believing that Christo had two lives. Once on his own, Christo began filling the house with guests, usually younger people with an interest in horticulture. Many people owed their careers to being taken under his wing. His work was gardening, visiting other gardens and writing about gardening; his relaxations music and writing at length to friends. His writings give the impression of someone unconventional and unorthodox but in many ways he was a conservative relic of an earlier age (my opinion) who learnt to cook but never to wash up and kept a distance between himself and ‘staff’. He wore ancient clothes and drove an ancient car in the way that only an upper middle class person can get away with.
For me, his writing is the most important thing. For years he wrote weekly columns for Country Life and The Guardian, always delivering perfect copy on time. The Well-Tempered Garden was published in 1970 and I probably read it about ten years later. It was a huge influence on me. It’s full of sound advice mixed with witty and trenchantly expressed opinions and along with Margery Fish’s books, set me on the road to serious gardening. As you see from the pile above, I have a first edition but can’t give up the tatty old paperback I first read; it’s that much of a favourite book. As Christo got older and more famous (partly through television appearances) the books got bigger, more lavishly produced and with much better photographs. For me though, they never added anything to the basic philosophy which is set out in TWTG. Everything he wrote was based on his own practical experience at Dixter. It’s surprising he became so popular with a wide public because he retained a patrician attitude, always preferring privately owned (large) gardens to those run by institutions.He was very unkind about the National Trust and couldn’t stand Graham Stuart Thomas, who returned the favour.
The biggest stroke of luck in Christo’s life was meeting Fergus Garrett and inviting him to be head gardener at Dixter. ‘I’ve never felt so close to anyone’ he wrote; they thought alike about gardening and as Christo grew frailer, Fergus had the energy to carry out their plans. I suppose Fergus’ objection to this Life is that Christo is shown as generous and good fun but at the same time irascible and sometimes rude. This portrait of a grumpy, rude old man is the one Fergus doesn’t recognise but the biographer also knew Christo well and spoke to many people about him. Whether or not he likes the book, Fergus comes out of it as a hero. The selfless way in which he worked full time in the garden while nurse-maiding Christo through writing commitments and lectures and letting him take the credit for many ideas that were Fergus’s own is remarkable, all the more so because he had family responsibilities of his own. Christo was delighted to become an almost-grandfather. I always find it sad to read about the last days of anyone’s life so will take a tip from the Lloyds and ignore it here. I recommend the book highly, even for people not very interested in gardening.
These are actually quite good pictures, taken with my old Canon Sure Shot, but scanning has done them no favours.
The house from the Long Border
Pots in the porch were a long standing tradition at Dixter. There were far more than I’ve managed to show here.
Me snapped unawares, making notes in the nursery. I seem to be wearing rather a lot of clothes. Note the ranks of pots in the background.
This was a group outing and there were very different reactions to the garden. Some of our party complained because they saw weeds. My husband, who wasn’t a gardener, absolutely loved it. Ever after, if I were watching Gardeners’ World and Christopher Lloyd appeared, he’d say, ‘Oh, is that Christo?’ and sit down to watch. I think perhaps he admired him for wearing outrageous T-shirts when he was eighty.