Research and the archives at Hidcote
Lawrence Johnston is today well known as the creator of one of the most beautiful gardens in England. However very little was known about him and how he came to create this garden as no records were provided when he gave Hidcote to the National Trust.
Recognising this deficit, in the late 80s and early 90s two Hidcote gardeners, David Owen and Peter Dennis, started recording what was in the garden and researching details stretching across the decades and the globe. Their painstaking detective work unearthed valuable contacts and pieces of information which were shared with the National Trust’s Garden Historian, Katie Fretwell, and some of which led to lasting partnerships. Their data was used by Katie to help compile the first comprehensive report on Hidcote, completed in February 2000, with much of the information remaining highly relevant and valuable today.
In the years since that 2000 report, Hidcote has been fortunate in recruiting a Volunteer Archivist, Graham Pearson, who has helped develop our understanding still further by uncovering exciting new information about Lawrence Johnston’s life as a gardener, plant hunter and soldier, which has added immensely to the research carried out by David, Peter and Katie.
Graham's research was triggered by the appearance in 2002 of a slim notebook covering the years from 1925 to 1928 and two engagement diaries for 1929 and 1932. These contain Lawrence’s notes and engagements covering those years.
He has subsequently visited several places as well as archives and libraries in the British Isles, France and the United States to seek and uncover new information about Lawrence, his family and his gardens. Many friends have helped in this work and have encouraged this search for new information.
" One of the most exciting moments was when I discovered that as well as Lawrence receiving plants from the Botanic Gardens at Kew and Edinburgh, he had also sent notable plants to these places."
In regard to his family, Graham found, for example, that his parents divorced in the early 1880s and his father, Elliott, then aged 59, married a young girl of 18 and went to live on the Eastern Shore of Virginia until he died in 1901.
We now know that his mother, Gertrude, took good care to look after her son financially by making two wills on the same day in London in 1924 – one for her estate in the United Kingdom and the other for her estate in the United States of America – so as to minimise death duties.
Garden and plantsman
As to Lawrence himself, he had become interested in gardening in Little Shelford in the early 1900s and he was elected a fellow of the Royal Horticultural Society in 1904 three years before he came to Hidcote. He was borrowing books on gardening and garden design – including Thomas Mawson’s The Art and Craft of Garden Making – from 1905 onwards.
Furthermore, his plantsmanship was recognised as early as June 1911, less than four years after arriving at Hidcote when he received an Award of Merit from the Royal Horticultural Society for the Hidcote strain of Primula pulverulenta (also known as Candelabra primula).
He was an early member of the Garden Society and had many friends amongst the landowners of Britain who, like him, were enthusiastic gardeners.
" It is like doing a jigsaw in that you never know where you will find a new piece."
His diaries show that he, like his mother, was a sociable person. He was also generous with his plants making many gifts to botanic gardens around the British Isles.
The new information enables us to gain a far better appreciation of Lawrence Johnston and of his creation of Hidcote.