BRENDA COLVIN: A Career in Landscape

by Trish Gibson

Publisher:  Frances Lincoln (2011)
ISBN 978-07112-3171-9

Hardback  £35

This book was published after the Journal deadline and I intended to skim through it quickly and write a short review.  But two pages in and I was hooked!

The author, Trish Gibson, is known to us as editor of this Journal and as a recorder for the Trust. She also has an MA in garden history and this biography blends that scholarship with her highly readable style. I had expected a small volume but this is a thick coffee-table-sized book which is illustrated throughout with photographs and plans, the majority of them Brenda Colvin’s own.

I have to confess I hadn’t heard of Colvin. She died in 1981, yet so many of her pioneering principles of garden and landscape design are still used today. Elected President of the Institute of Landscape Architects in 1951, she was the first woman to be president of any environmental or engineering profession. This book follows her life and work, linking her career by themes rather than strict chronological order. Her output was prolific: her notebook lists 675 projects. From small London gardens and her own garden in the Cotswolds to grander settings such as Buscot Old Parsonage and the Habsburg ‘New Castle’ in Poland, she created stylish gardens of great energy, easy to maintain, and revealed sensitivity and profound knowledge in the plants used.  Her landscape projects demonstrated her great understanding of the importance of the surrounding scenery, the land forms, the local climate, the needs of people, and the wildlife, and included new towns such as East Kilbride and Aldershot Military Town, the University of East Anglia, power stations and reservoirs.

Colvin’s great spirit is also well captured. She had a preference for sports and soft-top cars, she drove around Britain and Europe, inspired students, challenged clients and architects, and, in 1970, took part in a protest against the route of the M40. The book finishes with notes, biographies of people mentioned in the text, a bibliography, a transcript of Colvin’s notebook and an index.  I recommend it as an interesting biography, a history of garden and landscape design in the 20th century, a guide for garden visitors, and a useful reference for anyone wishing to create or change a garden.

Shirley Barnes