In 1900 a group of American people started a fashion in England for being happy in a world so lost until then. To this group Mrs Gertrude Winthrop sent her only son from her last marriage to search for a home in England. He left from New York around early 1900 on a mission for his aged mother. His name was Lawrence Waterbury Johnston and this is his story.
In Gloustershire not far from old old market town of Chipping Campden and within the area of the Cotswold group of Americans he sighted Hidcote Manor house for sale. It fitted his every need. Soon he was writing to to his mother with the news. She came over to view still nervous to be in England some 200 years after her ancestor had left the shores to find work in New England USA. They bought the manor house and some farm lands around it for 6000 pounds sterling.
One of the very few photographs of Major Lawrence Johnston.
His mother had no real intent to spend on gardens but she was happy her son wanted to clean up the land. She found her niche with other Americans in coffee house morning meetings to fill her days.
Edith Wharton writer gardener and heiress attached to Major Lawrence Johnston from day of meeting to her death as friends. His health failing after her death he may have stayed in France to be warmer or did he come to find he loved Edith so much he could not cope. He had been born in Paris and that another reason for leaving his lovely garden that people such as I take ideas from. Hidcote is perhaps the greatest garden ever built in my mind , at least.
In 1902 Lawrence Johnston did read many gardening books starting a life times love of the subject. He may have planed it many times on paper but nothing of it exists today. Then he came across a book all about designing gardens .it spoke to his soul more so that Lutchens and Jeakle had done.The book by Thomas Mawson who had owned Lakeland Nurseries in Windermere far north of Gloucester but had designed some of the most prestigious gardens around the world. Johnstons dream of Hidcote gardens came out of the pages of this book. I bought a copy of it and at high cost I treasure it.
In 1907 he enlisted in the Hussars to help Britain in the Boar War of South Africa.For 4 years Hidcote was neglected by all.
In 1910 returned as Major and put his all into the gardens
employing 12 gardeners as his team to create his dream. By 1920 it was in its perfect way. All the top brass came to see it even Churchill thrilled at his many visits. Although Lawrence Johnston was a very private living man he must have liked what people said of his designs.
The first World war came and he was again called up to fight for England. In this hell he found a friend who he treasured .Her name was Edith Wharton a lady who loved France and warmer days but was trapped in Paris in war torn Europe. Johnston was posted to that area and found her wandering about deep in thought.The two came so close and lived for moments to be together. It was not real deep love but a real friendship that lasted to her death in 1937. She had planed with him some of the garden rooms at Hidcote although she lived in France they stayed in each others homes regularly between wars. Her death fell heavily on Johnston and maybe that is why he went to life in France at his mothers old home called Serre de la Madone near Menton.
My though when seeing this run down gardens on a trip to buy statues for my gardens brought me to ask questions. It was open to the public but still in a shabby state of general neglect .I roamed around it wondering what drove this great man to leave Hidcote Bartrim village and his beloved Hidcote manor gardens for this baked earth and no hedges. It was almost tearful to see it. Yes may have been nice after it was first made made but what it was did not stood out clearly.It was nothing as good as Hidcote even in its hey day.
Something must have happened for him to walk out of his dream to leave it to Government in the form of National Trust and come to reside in this unearthly place just like that. I cant help feeling if I had built Hidcote would I want anything better than my tomb there. He is buried near his mother in England just a walk from those garden gates he had paid for as his. He gave this French property to his servants who had helped him so well in illness in his last six months on earth. He was a kind soul for all that.
And that is my mystery. Why want another garden why did he want France. Was it the love of his life had he only asked for her hand. This private hero this great man was he not so brave with love. When his Edith died did it finish him inside? Was his last beat of heart more of her than anything he had ever done. If so I understand it all. His name will live forever in the work he did on Hidcote Gardens and perhaps his ghost and hers remain within the many rooms they both designed.
Major Lawrence Johnston in his last years
Hidcote gardens are in short, heaven on earth a place to be within to find peace, beyond that world of war and of men so mad as to want war.
Yours with love, Sir Kevin.
Copyright Sir Kevin Parr Bt 2018