Penelope talked to us about her life and career, which has been a varied one. She has made several gardens (Hadspen and Bettescombe), written about colour, design, garden practice, garden history and Islamic gardens. The breadth of her knowledge and experience is huge, which makes her very interesting. She can also be irreverent and funny – which surprises people; just before we started she whispered to me that we should make some jokes to lighten the atmosphere up – I think Tim and I obliged, its remarkably how one can produce humour when the pressure is on. The Vista audience were a bit overawed – there is something about Penelope which pushes a “girl school headmistress” button in a lot of people which is shame, because she isn’t actually like that.
The previous week I had spent a morning with her at her new home back at Hadspen, going over the ground for the Vista evening. So much of what she spoke about rather sent me off down memory lane – the height of her career was when I was just starting out running a nursery, doing some garden design and beginning to write myself. Things have moved on so much though: garden history has had its moment (in Britain at least), and Americans are no longer interested in hanging on to every word from British gardeners (thank goodness). Penelope’s interest in the US garden scene in fact waned before they really declared independence though. Part of the reason for this is something I really warm to about Penelope, a distrust of clients with only money to spend – for her there has to be something deeper and more meaningful in garden making. From USA to Iran was an interesting change in loyalties, but the Islamic garden tradition (which is actually pre-Islamic) offers a spiritual/aesthetic exploration of space and a set of intellectual challenges.
Next month at Vista – James Hitchmough
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