I have been itching to read Four Hedges by Claire Leighton (1898 - 1989) but each time I had picked it up it hadn't been April, which is when the book starts its monthly meander through the year. Flicking ahead to July or September just hadn't worked, but I love books like this so I have made a time-appropriate start and this will be one of the books to read each month.
My edition is published by Little Toller and comes with an introduction by Carol Klein who elaborates on the half acre garden at Four Hedges in Monk's Risborough, in the Chilterns, taken on by Claire Leighton and her partner, political journalist (Henry) Noel Brailsford in the early 1930s. E.M.Forster lived in the area, as did artist John Nash, whilst novelist Winifred Holtby had a cottage nearby. Claire took lessons from and would also model for the sculptor Eric Gill, and thus, not unlike the lives of Gilbert and Mary Cannan, there was no lack of cultural and social opportunity with like-minded people.
I like Carol Klein's suggestion that Claire doesn't profess to know it all when it comes to gardening, that this project is a learning curve and that there is much in the book with which to identify. There might be one or two things that don't quite happen for me, like the gloves, but the episode still resonated...
'Who wouldn't identify with pulling off the gardening gloves, the better to get to grips with the soil, to feel it and love it, abandoning not just gloves but all inhibition and restraing that deny the very visceral experience of gardening...'
I'm not there yet, once a nurse, always a nurse...I still love my gloves and have pairs for every purpose... potting, planting out, pulling up brambles, weeding, wet gloves, dry gloves, pretty gloves. Who knew I would find gardening gloves such a treat and be thrilled every time someone gives me a new pair.
The woodcuts are of course things of beauty and something I understood much more about once I had read Frances Spalding's excellent and very readable biography of another wood-engraver, Gwen Raverat - Friends, Family, Affections and with whom Claire Leighton often exhibited along with Eric Ravilious. It's all about end-grain versus the much softer side-grain of the wood, and the difference between engraving and cutting took on a significance of which I knew little.
And I had forgotten that Claire Leighton's brother was the Roland Leighton who had been engaged to Vera Brittain and who was killed so tragically in the Great War. Then I discover a Crisis of Brilliance connection in that Claire studied at the Slade under the tutorship of Henry Tonks after the war.
April has already yielded a lovely moment...knowing that their chalky soil is unsuitable for Lupins, but still desperate to grow them, Noel cycles off into Oxfordshire and brings back a sack full of 'wonderful brown soil' ...strapped across the back wheel of his bicycle 'like the saddlebags of a Mediterranean donkey. Who can know the couple's joy at the sight of something so simple...
'For there is something luxurious in dark brown soil to those who live in the world of pale grey chalk.'
A gentle 'growing' rain falls which is looked on as a friend and I will try better to do likewise. I usually do but this winter has tested most of us to the limits of our precipitation tolerance. As I read of the first swallows arriving I realise it will be soon be time for ours, and then I wonder how they will cope with the absence of their old nest. After years and years of brood after brood the swallows left it alone last year so we decided to remove and will see if they might start afresh...I know this feeling well...
'We grow excited as we see them prospecting in front of the house... there seems no way of informing a bird that she will be welcome and cared for and left undisturbed...'
I would add ...'and that we feed Magnus beyond his internal plimsoll line in the hope that he will sleep and ignore you.' Cats never seem to have bothered our swallows in the past so here's hoping we see this...
...followed by this happy little brood.
Claire Leighton and Noel Brailsford's story seems to end less happily. Having been trapped in a loveless marriage since 1898, with a wife who refused him a divorce, Noel and Claire lived together for several years after they met in 1928. When Noel's wife Jane finally died of alcoholism in 1937, leaving the way clear for the couple to marry, Noel, consumed by guilt and self-recrimination, suffered an emotional breakdown, effectively destroying his relationship with Claire who left Four Hedges behind for a new life in the USA in 1939.
It's not something I could even begin to imagine at the moment, and how Claire must have felt when she heard that Noel had met and married a German refugee forty years his junior can only be guessed, but she achieved similar acclaim for her work in the US, where she settled and lived in Connecticut, remaining unmarried until her death in 1989.
It is only to be hoped that their garden at Four Hedges at least gave the couple some pleasure during their time together and I am certainly looking forward to 'armchair' gardening alongside them through this coming year.