Some of the posts on here have been a long time in the making. Today’s is one such. When I was researching a post about garden writer Mrs Earle way back in 2015 I discovered that a piece she written had been illustrated by an artist named Margaret Waterfield. I liked the paintings and thought she might make another good subject.I then discovered that there was very little known about and after a quick browse of my bookshelves and several google searches I gave up until this summer when I decided to give it another more serious go.
Most of Margaret ‘s work seems to have been done in the late 19th and early 20thc and then she faded from public view long before her death in 1953. Although there was a brief outburst of interest in her and her work in the late 1980s which led to two short articles, I’m still unable to put together anything like a full biography but when you see the range and quality of her work I hope you’ll agree that she deserves renewed attention and further research.
The first article was published in the RHS journal, The Garden in August 1987 by William Fredrick Jr which ended: “the author would welcome additional information about Margaret Helen Waterfield and the whereabouts of any of her original watercolours.” Frederick himself was a distinguished American gardener and garden writer but as far as I can see he didn’t discover much more. However, in October 1990 he provided the images for a well-illustrated piece in Country Life by Diana Baskervyle-Glegg who had managed to find out a little more.
What we do know is that Margaret Waterfield was born at Shanklin on the Isle of Wight in 1863, one of a family of seven children.
She and her sisters would almost certainly have been educated by a governess but her father, Charles, believed in the independence of women and almost certainly also took a big part in her education. He was Eton and Cambridge educated, and had been private secretary to Lord Aberdeen, the former Prime Minister, and involved in many intellectual circles before he quit political life and bought one of the country’s leading prep schools, Temple Grove in Mortlake in south west London in the same year.
He remained there until 1880 when he sold up and joined the board of the Ottoman Bank and bought Nackington House just outside Canterbury, He died in 1898 and was described in his obituary in The Observer described him as “the only Socrates that England had produced”.
[He was clearly a very interesting figure so if you’re interested in knowing more about him then look at AC Benson’s Memories and Friends]
Living at Nackington must have been quite comfortable with the 1891 census listing 8 live-in servants. The estate had farmland, woods and about 18 acres of garden which Margaret used as an outside studio for her paintings. Her talent was quickly recognised and she began exhibiting her work all over country before, in 1889, being elected an associate of the Institute of Watercolour Artists.
She travelled widely in Europe, visiting Italy, Switzerland and Austria and, like Gertrude Jekyll, even crossed the Mediterranean to visit Algeria. When her youngest brother Aubrey settled in Italy having married Lina Duff Gordon she stayed in their castle at Aulla near Florence painting Tuscan landscapes. Aubrey was himself a painter and garden-maker having helped design the gardens at Northbourne Court as well as the garden in the sky at Lunigiana. But it was in and around Nackington where she lived with her mother and sister, managing the gardens that Margaret spent most of her time until 1914.
Her first book Garden Colour, 1905, seems to have been her idea. It followed the well known formula of having a chapter for most months – apart from November, December and January – which she wrote herself but each season had an introductory chapter written by a well known garden writer of the day. Theresa Earle wrote about the Spring, Eleanor Vere Boyle the Summer, Rose Kingsley [daughter of Charles Kingsley the novelist and clergyman] the autumn and Vicary Gibbs [Tory MP and garden-maker at Aldenham House] , concluded with colour in the winter garden. There were also 3 additional chapters on roses and peonies by others. Margaret provided all the illustrations herself.
Their subjects were mainly drawn from the style of the cottage garden and she concluded her brief introduction with thanks to them and ” to those who have so courteously allowed me to paint in their gardens, and to Mr Robinson, whose books first fired me with enthusiasm for this form of gardening.” In fact the majority of the illustrations were painted from life in her own garden at Nackington with another group done in WIsley and just a scattering in other gardens. None of the plates in the book really bear much resemblance to a typical small cottage garden, although they do show a lot of evidence of planting in a naturalistic way as suggested by Robinson, and including exotics in the mix. That’s echoed by the text where’s its clear she is fond of gentle disarray and talks of plants being splendid for naturalising.
The frontispiece to Garden Colour is one of the series of paintings that record Nackington as what she calls “a perfect Edwardian set-piece.” It shows clematis, asters and red-hot pokers in front of the ornate gated entrance to the walled kitchen garden. Diana Baskervyle-Glegg describes the planting inside as having over 100 fruit trees, including fan-trained peaches and a pear walk as well as an orangery. There were with flower lined paths and vine-covered arches.
Other illustrations show much wider garden, or even landscape, scenes which are sketched and coloured for an overall effect rather than to capture specific detail.
While there are no precise botanical studies she does also include studies of small groups of clearly identifiable flowers in their setting, but still portrayed in a sketchy way.
The text and paintings also help show how gardening styles change. Who on earth has the time and energy – or indeed the staff -to create a display like the one at Milton Court pictured below?
Two years later a similar collaborative effort led to Flower grouping in English, Scotch & Irish gardens which acknowledged her as the author of the notes and some chapters as well as no less than 56 coloured sketches. There are 11 other contributors including Eleanor Vere Boyle and Rose Kingsley.
Margaret herself wrote about a whole range of pieces about various spring bulbs and flowering trees, as well as rhododendrons, campanulas and half-hardy creepers, showing a deep love wide knowledge of all of these plants. Her tone and style are simple and clear without any of the more poetic language beloved of many other writers of her era, which makes it easy to read but difficult to choose a quote to illustrate the point!
Although most of her paintings in Flower Grouping are in the same sketchy style as those in Garden Colour, there are some which take on a slightly more distinct and crisp feel, although they are still far from being sharp.
According to Diana Baskervyle-Glegg her paintings of the gardens at Tregothnan are probably the first to record the flowering of rhododendrons and other shrubs newly introduced from China by George Forrest and EH Wilson, although there is no mention of either them or China in the text.
She was one of a group of artists, along with Beatrice Parsons [who I have written about alreraduy] and Eleanor Fortesciue-Brickdale [wwho will feature in another post soon] who contributed illustratrations to Horace and Walter Wright’s “Beautiful Flowers and how to grow them“. This came out in 2 volumes in 1908 and 1909, and was re-issued again in 1922.
Next came A Book of Gardens in 1910. Similar in approach – 10 contributors – but this time most like Walter Scott, John Ruskin and William Cowper the poet, were long gone. The two livings authors who had extracts included were Alice Meynell the poet and suffragist, and her old collaborator Eleanor Vere Boyle whose garden she included as the frontispiece. Again she provided all the illustrations, so that one almost feels she chose the texts as an excuse or setting for her paintings rather than the other way round.
I have same feeling about Corners of Grey Old Gardens which was published in 1914. It is a beautifully produced little book with a cover designed by Jessie King, a Scottish contemporary with a very distinctive style. Once again it included a series of set-pieces by a range of authors, which show her breadth of garden history and garden writing. There were extracts from John Gerard, Uvedale Price and William Lawson as well as Walter Scott. More modern contributors once again included Eleanor Vere Boyle.
But 1914 also saw the end of her careful tending of the gardens at Nackington for a long time. They fell into decay as the house became a military hospital and she was taken up with women’s war work.
Perhaps she was also finding it all a bit much because by 1918 she had begun to look around for land on which to build herself a house, eventually finding it overlooking Romney Marshes next to the Port Lympne. estate of Philip Sassoon.
She was 57 when, in 1921, she moved to Aldergate Wood and began making a new garden, and it was to be her home for the rest of her life. Unfortunately I can’t find any images of it, or indeed of Nackington which appears to have been demolished soon afterwards and the site redeveloped for housing. Aldergate Wood clearly kept her busy and she did not returns to publication until 1926 but now it was not a new compilation of essays, but simply to provide 4 plates to illustrate a new edition of The Manse Garden, by Rev Nathaniel Patterson published ninety years earlier in 1836.
After that she simply gardened and painted, but with no more work published and, as far as I can see, no further exhibitions. When her niece, who inherited Aldergate Wood in 1953 following her death, looked around, she found about a hundred of her aunt’s paintings rotting away in a shed and beyond restoration. Luckily others survive in private hands – there is only one that I have found in a public collection – and of course in her books. Let me finish with a quote from William Frederick who started the revival of interest in Margaret Waterfield: “Not only are the paintings a great record of the gardens of that period… but they are the finest examples I know of their spirit being captured in pictures for posterity. No photographs could have done so well.”
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