‘Great Dixter Then & Now’: Review

Great Dixter is one of the UK’s iconic gardens, famous world-wide as the garden of the late Christopher Lloyd, icon and iconoclast of the gardening world and one of the most influential gardeners of the late 20th century.

In this new book, ‘Great Dixter Then & Now’ we are taken on a historic journey through a selection of carefully chosen images taken by Christopher Lloyd and Carol Casselden, with words by Fergus Garrett, charting the progress of Great Dixter from the beginnings just after the First World War through to the exuberance of Christopher Lloyd’s borders in the second half of the 20th century.

As Fergus points out in the Introduction, this book is important because it is a record of how Great Dixter has been enriched by the interpretation of its different gardeners, “showing Great Dixter as an inspiring place that expresses the magical beauty of plants grown abundantly together in a long-tended and much-loved historic setting.”

The earliest photographs depict the raw new planting masterminded by Christopher’s mother Daisy after the First World War, progressing through the decades with many of Christopher’s wonderful colour slides, depicting the lushness and exuberance of his planting.

What made the book really appealing to me is the juxtaposition of images from the Lloyd family’s earliest days at Dixter and the wealth of photographs taken by Christopher himself to photographs taken by Carol Casselden and others of the garden as it is today. Carol started taking photogaphs of the garden just before Christopher’s death in 2006 and so her images are a record of the garden over the significant period when Fergus Garrett created his own distinctive vision for the garden.

To create this special record, it was necessary to number and digitise nearly 4,000 items including thousands of transparencies – made possible through the work of cataloguer Jo Hillier, photographic conservator Susie Clark and James Stephenson of Cultural Heritage Digitisation. The result is a triumph, perfectly encapsulating the progress and changes to the garden over what amounts to nearly a century and through the different styles and tastes of Daisy, Christopher and Fergus.

Christopher photographed the garden from the 1930s almost until his death recording it in intimate detail as it changed and developed. He was a charismatic and often controversial figure, who produced some of the most influential gardening books of the last 100 years, several of which, I am pleased to say, sit on my bookshelf. He was awarded the OBE in 2000 and held the highest award of the Royal Horticultural Society, the Victoria Medal of Honour.

The photographs are undoubtedly the stars of the book, however, Fergus’ text is the perfect complement, just long enough to be interesting and informative, guiding us though the various parts of the garden and so enhancing what we see in the images. He also details interesting historical details to help the reader appreciate the developments in the garden.

I well remember the outrage when Christopher decided to rip out the majority of roses in the Lutyen’s Rose Garden in the 1990s. This area he decided to regenerate as the Exotic Garden with bright colours and foliage, starting yet another trend with his exotic colours. In recent years, Fergus has continued the experiments within this space, introducing conifers and allowing planting to overflow onto pathways. This is a perfect illustration of how a garden can and should evolve with each generation of gardeners as Fergus points out in the Introduction: “Each has experimented and pushed boundaries while at the same time maintaining the underlying and distinctive character of the garden.”

The book is also a brilliant size, just slightly larger than A5 and softback so it’s easy to handle and browse through, because browse you will want to do! It will also act as an excellent companion should you visit the garden and will certainly help the visitor interpret the developments at Great Dixter as well as giving a sense of history and place.

There is a lovely black and white photograph of Christopher and his mother in the meadow garden in 1925 (see right). The small boy is being shown the various plants and he looks on with rapt attention. The importance of engaging children in nature and wildlife from an early age is not lost in this image from nearly 100 years ago.

Fergus Garrett was chosen by Christopher Lloyd as his head gardener in 1992 and he worked closely with ‘Christo’ until Lloyd’s death in 2006. He is now Chief Executive of the Great Dixter Charitable Trust and also combines his full-time hand-on gardening role with writing and lecturing. He was awarded the Veitch Memorial Medal by the RHS in 2015 and in 2019 the coveted RHS Victoria Medal of Honour.

Carol Casselden is an award-winning photographer of gardens and plants and lived close to Great Dixter before she moved to Edinburgh.

‘Great Dixter Then & Now’ is in softback, published by Pimpernel Press www.pimpernelpress.com – and priced at £12.99.

A copy of the book was kindly supplied by the publisher for review purposes.

Picture credits: top middle credit: The Exotic Garden – Christopher Lloyd; middle: Orchids on the topiary lawn, credit Carol Casselden; bottom right: Christopher with his mother Daisy, ©The Trustees of the Great Dixter Charitable Trust.