Francis King

Home thoughts from abroad | 8 July 2009

Paradise of Exiles, by Katie Campbell

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Paradise of Exiles

Katie Campbell

Frances Lincoln, pp. 176, £

The subtitle, ‘The Anglo-American Gardens of Florence’, of this engaging and elegantly produced book, is misleading. The reclusive and narcissistic chatelaine of the Villa Gamberai in the days of its glory, Princess Catherine Jeanne Keshko Ghika, was not an Anglo-American but a Romanian. Similarly, Lady Paget, indefatigable not merely as a custodian of her superb garden at Torre di Bellosguardo but also as a lady scribbler, was born a Saxon princess, Walburga (‘Wally’ to her friends) Helena de Hohenthal.

Katie Campbell also from time to time strays beyond her geographical parameters. The Sitwells’ Montegufoni, Val d’Orcia, in which Iris Origo’s La Foce is situated, and Anciano, where Lord Lambton in some measure expiated for an often misspent life by the creation of a superb garden for his Villa Cetinale, can hardly be regarded as even remote suburbs of Florence.

No great matter — except to pedants like myself. What make this book so entertaining are not merely its skilful evocations of famous gardens but also its hugely entertaining accounts of those who presided over them. Having admitted that people visited Vernon Lee’s Il Palmerino not for its undistinguished building and garden but for its owner, a lesbian of remarkable erudition and powerful of intellect, whom Cyril Connolly classified among such ‘mighty-mouthed international geysers’ as Coleridge, Swinburne and Wilde, Campbell at once brings this once famous but now largely forgotten character to formidable life in no more than half-a-dozen pages. For many other notabilities she performs the same skilful service.

It is difficult to assess how much was done by, and how much was done for, these wealthy and often aristocratic expatriates as they vied with each other in taking over some dilapidated castle or villa and turning it and its grounds into a wonder of their small, exclusive world. It was once generally accepted that the only begetter of the gardens of La Pietra had been Arthur Acton. But now much or even most of the credit is given to a Polish gardener and the French designer Henri Duchêne. In the case of the gardens of Montegufoni Sir George Sitwell has a stronger claim, since he had a professional’s expertise in the replanting of trees, for which he had a mania.

Acton’s and Sitwell’s heirs were both homosexual writers, who took pride in their gardens but concerned themselves little with their extension, redesign or upkeep. When, awkward and self-conscious, I first arrived as a young man in Florence, I had the good fortune to be invited up to La Pietra by Harold Acton. Suddenly, after a turn in a pathway, a tree, a yellow blaze of blossom in the afternoon sunshine, confronted us. ‘What it that?’ I asked in amazement. Acton languidly waved a hand. ‘Oh, it’s a — you-know — a thingummy-bob.’ Clearly he had no idea.

The key elements of the Italian garden had always been marble, water and greenery. The expatriates would have none of that. The poor local soil, suited only to vines, tea roses, peonies and lilies did not daunt them. Theirs must be English gardens. The prime example of this sort of horticultural imperialism was a woman called Gloria Grahame, about whom little is known other than what she revealed in her book In a Tuscan Garden (1902). She imported not merely plants advertised in The Garden and Country Life but also domestic staff from her native Scotland.

Campbell retells Osbert Sitwell’s story of how Edward VII’s one-time mistress Mrs Keppel would each morning march around the gardens of L’Ombrellino, poking the end of her umbrella into the beds and admonishing her gardeners ‘Bisogna begonia!’ To the modish and highly talented architect Cecil Pinsent, designer of so many Florentine villas and gardens, she consigned the task, no doubt repugnant to a man of such impeccable taste, of transforming her front terrace into a Union Jack Garden in red, white and blue.

Campbell’s first sentence and a number of later ones contain the word ‘intriguing’, used in its comparatively recent sense of ‘fascinating’. If I seek for one word to describe this book, then that is it. Hers is a witty, charming, informative and well-written study. But, above all, it is an intriguing one.