I'm dreaming of Valerie Finnis. No, not the delicately pale blue Muscari that bears her name and is planted in my spring garden. I mean Valerie Finnis, the photographer. It's because of Finnis that I started gardening in a rather confused fashion. I got the wrong idea about garden fashions — what gardeners wear to work in the garden — after seeing some of her portraits in old books and magazines.
In the early 1950s Finnis, an expert in Alpine plants, acquired her first camera, becoming one of the first women to specialize in photographing plants and gardeners in their domains. She never took more than one exposure of each subject because she considered film too expensive to waste. Finnis made portraits of dozens of gardeners who were both accomplished and quirky — in and out of the garden.
I might consider Rhoda, Lady Birley (above), suitably dressed for the garden if I couldn't see her feet. Sorry, those pretty little party shoes she's wearing are not only silly looking but downright dangerous when you're holding a pair of pruners the size of the ones Rhoda's clutching. But her scarf — or whatever's around her neck — is a perfect color match to her garden blooms.
Finnis captured both Nancy Lancaster (below) and Rhoda, Lady Birley (above), in the garden wearing outrageous hats — something dear to Finnis' own heart. Both of those women were drama queens so I should have guessed they were dressed for the camera and not the garden. But, at the time, I didn't know any real gardeners, so I couldn't be sure if they actually gardened wearing such strange and rather lovely attire. These photos are the reason why I have more garden hats than any other item of garden gear.
Nancy Lancaster well-covered here in the midst of a rosebush. Though the hat looks used and useful, it's still a pretty outrageous coverup!
This hatless portrait (above) of Nancy Lancaster, doyenne of English country house style, is on the cover of Valerie Finnis' book, "Garden People." Lancaster's sporting a scarf and a hollyhock in "buttah yellow," the color of her famous — and much imitated — salon. I'm still not sure about her outfit; that jacket looks too nice to be so close to a hose!
There seem to be a limited number of photos of Vita Sackville-West in her garden at Sissinghurst Castle. I've seen one where she's beginning to dig the border in the southwest corner of the Tower lawn — by hand. Of course, it's a ludicrous image when one considers the size of this garden. But what really makes it laughable is that Vita is wearing a skirt!
Most images show her wearing jodhpurs (below) that look more suited to the stables than the garden, along with knee-high lace-up boots. The whole get-up always looks highly uncomfortable to me.
Vita Sackville-West (left) examines an urn at the base of the Tower at Sissinghurst Castle. Her garden assistants — Pamela Schwerdt (center) and Sibylle Kreutzberger — are dressed like Vita in jodhpurs but with rubber boots. The picture below shows the pair — who eventually became joint Head Gardeners at Sissinghurst — in more modern and comfortable long pants. But the two women are wielding wooden wheelbarrows, albeit with rubber wheels! Still, I might put up with a fair amount of discomfort if I could work somewhere as beautiful as Sissinghurst!
I love the image Finnis captured of Mr. and Mrs. Gerard Parker, a pair of snowdrop enthusiasts (below). He looks like he just stepped off the train, briefcase in hand, and she's perhaps coming home from a committee meeting. They meet — by chance or choice? — in the garden.
Of course, I like the photo because it reminds me so much of myself. I have a tendency to pull into the driveway, get out of the car and get lost in the garden — all before I've opened the front door, checked for mail or greeted my spouse. This picture suggests I'm not a bad person, just an addicted gardener. An issue for my husband, but clearly not for the Brits!
Mr. and Mrs. Gerard Parker get up close and personal with their snowdrops.
At age 46, Finnis' married another avid gardener, Sir David Scott, then age 82. An hour after the church ceremony, the newlyweds were out in the garden weeding together. If that's not a match made in gardening heaven, I don't know what is. I don't believe this is the wedding day photo, but clearly they're dressed for work here: though gloveless, their heads are nattily covered.
TOMORROW: What gardeners really wear.