I recently picked up a copy of Norah Lindsay: the Life and Art of a Garden Designer, by Allyson Hayward (2007). This book is an interesting reappraisal of a designer who created a number of influential gardens in the interwar period. After her death her work was rapidly forgotten, perhaps because her image as an upper-class social butterfly obscured the quality of her designs, and the sustained work that went into creating them.
Norah Lindsay was born in India in 1873. Her father, Major Edward Bourke, and her mother Emma were well connected among the British aristocracy, and Norah grew up in the company of assorted Wyndhams, Desboroughs, Grenfells and Rutlands. In 1895 Norah married Harry Lindsay, a younger son of the Earl of Crawford. As a wedding present the couple was given the manor house of Sutton Courtenay, then in Berkshire (now Oxfordshire).
At Sutton Courtenay Norah developed her gardening style, a mixture of formal clipped trees and hedges with informal planting in the style of Gertrude Jekyll. But the idyll ended at the end of the First World War, when Norah and Harry separated. From then on Norah had to earn her living as a professional garden designer, but the fame of her garden at Sutton Courtenay, as well as her network of friends and relations, stood her in good stead.
A number of gardens where Norah worked are now in the care of the National Trust. At Chirk Castle she reshaped the topiary and created a large herbaceous border. The distinctive topiary shapes at Chirk, consisting of cylinders surmounted by cones, and which she called ‘Welsh hats’, would become something of a Norah Lindsay trademark.
At Blickling Hall in the 1930s, working for the Marquess of Lothian, Norah once again combined topiary with flowering plants to transform the Victorian Parterre.
Norah knew Lawrence Johnston and often stayed at Hidcote Manor. Their respective gardening tastes, favouring combinations of formality and informality, green structure and floral abundance, were very similar.
Viscountess Astor, a close friend of the Marquess of Lothian, employed Norah at Cliveden, and evidence of her work can still be seen in the Long Garden and the Water Garden. During Ascot week she also helped to create the lavish floral arrangements in the house, which were changed three times a day.
At Mottisfont Abbey Norah designed a parterre for Maud and Gilbert Russell and also advised on the planting of the walled garden.
Socialite though she may have been, what comes across now is the quality and professionalism of her work.