Christopher Lloyd and Great Dixter

Chatto & Windus published Christopher Lloyd: His Life At Great Dixter by Stephen Anderton. What started out as a biography of a great gardener became a double biography of Christopher Lloyd and his mother Daisy. But there is reason and system to this.

Gardening is a passion. And this book is about one of the most passionate gardeners Britain has seen in the last century. Christopher Lloyd was an innovator in his garden and brought innovation to British gardens. My parents jokingly called him the Pope of gardening. If you are into gardening and don't have any of his books, you are missing out on something.

Nathaniel Lloyd, Christopher's father, bought Dixter Hall in 1910 when retiring after a very successful career as a lithographic printer. The house he bought in Northiam was originally built in the 15th century; it was dilapidated and needed a complete restoration. Nathaniel Lloyd also bought a derelict yeoman’s hall standing in Benenden; he had it dismantled piece by piece and brought to Northiam to add to the existing hall. He left it to Sir Edwin Lutyens to fit it all together into a family home for himself, his much younger wife Daisy and their six children.

When Nathaniel Lloyd died of a heart attack on the golf course, Daisy took over. Ruling her family like a field marshal but with less compassion for her troops, she would be the sole influence that shaped Christopher Lloyd, the youngest child of her five sons and one daughter. She was one of those awful parents who always know best for their children, and she managed to drive them all from her side with the exception of Christopher. She despised the wives of her four older sons as much as the husband of her daughter. Christopher Lloyd wisely stayed single.

Daisy’s passion was the garden of Great Dixter or Dixter Hall. It is not so much a single garden, rather a domain of gardens. It is little wonder she didn't have any emotions left for minor inconveniences like a gaggle of children. Her passion captured and shaped Christopher Lloyd into what he became: the foremost gardener of the realm.

Christopher Lloyd lived with his mother at Dixter Hall until her death. He didn't flee her proximity as his siblings had done; he found his escape in writing. His books on gardening still are some of the best ever written, and The Well Tempered Garden has to be a major standard work any gardener should own. The gardens at Great Dixter were his life to the end, and he defined himself and his life through these gardens.

The book paints a picture of a monster where Daisy is concerned, and Stephen Anderton probably is not far from the mark. It depicts Christopher Lloyd as a repressed homosexual completely under the thumb of his mother, a great gardener and prolific writer. His moods, his acerbic comments, the constant family feuds with his siblings all form part of the book, as well as the unhappy ending for his sister. He even is blamed for not being sympathetic to his sister’s depression, though she lived so near. But quite frankly, there were other family members living just as nearby, and they didn't lift a finger either.

Stephen Anderson was asked by Christopher Lloyd to write his biography as a friend of 20 years standing. But this is the rub. He didn't really have any friends as people understand friendship. And this shines through in the biography, which seems influenced by the views of living family members, who all and sundry were in constant disagreement with Christopher. The author had access to the family archives (lumps and bundles of papers actually, stuffed away here and there into drawers, cupboards, and other hiding places conveniently found in country piles like Great Dixter) and draws heavily on them. All the same, I am not happy with the result.

Yes, Christopher Lloyd was homosexual, and he fell with a certain predictability for one of his gardening students. But that was not the defining force of his life. It is revealing that he only fell for his students, as he defined even such an attachment through the gardens. As with his friends and family, his emotions for the gardens came first, human beings after. Once you were able to accept this, you could get along with him reasonably well.

Having said that, the book is still worth reading; the pictures of the gardens do no justice to what you will find should you visit Great Dixter. The book does give an insight into the human being that was Christopher Lloyd and what shaped him, even though it falls short on his all encompassing passion for his gardens.