The maker of the most adored garden in the world at Sissinghurst Castle, Vita Sackville-West, used to say that she came to gardening "at the ripe old age of 22". In fact she had started as a child but was driven to fury by the interference of her father's gardeners at Knole, whenever her plot became untidy: her first real garden, in her first married home, was in Constantinople.
Such tales of prodigy are many, but they are almost all cast into the shade by the fabulous tale of Ellen Ann Willmott, who came down to breakfast on the morning of her seventh birthday, 19 August 1865, to find a cheque for pounds 1,000 on her plate. I imagine it was a sunny morning, and she was surely a pretty little girl, with ringlets and curls and a white lawn smock over her flowery crinoline. She was the eldest of three daughters: her sister Rose was not quite four and the baby Ada was 14 months. Their father, Frederick Willmott, who was something in the City, was successful, and their mother Ellen Fell had her own family money; they were indulgent parents, living in a large house in leafy Heston, on the fringe of Osterley Park, and sharing a life full of music and beautiful things, especially flowers, and a taste for travel. Ellie's birthday cheque, which would have made a comfortable annual income for a young professional's family, had come from her childless godmother, Helen Tasker - it was to be the first of many, and as the Willmotts had no sons to educate (and a spell at a local convent sufficed for both Ellie and Rose) it could be spent on beautiful things, especially flowers. The only shadow to pass over their sunny existence was that Ada died of diphtheria in early 1872, when she was seven and Ellie was 13; from then on Ellie and Rose became inseparable, with Ellie usually in the lead.
Three years later, in 1875, the family's gardening ambitions and Ellie's in particular, prompted Frederick Willmott to buy a country estate, Warley Place at Great Warley in Essex. It was 24 miles commuting distance to the City, free from "its foul fogs and smoke" and had a lovely old park and garden, with evergreen oaks and sweet chestnuts reputedly planted by John Evelyn. The Willmotts moved in the summer of 1876, and for the next 15 years they were a united and happy foursome, reviving and replanting orchards, flower borders, kitchen gardens, vineries and hot houses. The most famous landscape gardening firm of the day, James Backhouse of York, was called in to build the rock garden, a few acres of pools, waterfalls and fern caves, which Ellie, her father proudly noted in his diary on 1 April 1882, began to plant with alpines. He bought another 22 acres of land on the other side of the road to Brentwood, where a house, The Cottage, was built with a full complement of lawns, flower and fruit gardens: this was presumably for Ellie and Rose, who became heiresses in their 20s, when the benevolent godmother Helen Tasker died, leaving them the equivalent of pounds 5m each, in today's money.
To celebrate Ellie's 30th birthday the family went off on a grand tour, which lasted until the summer of 1889: soon Ellie and Rose were off again to Europe, and the reason became clear with Ellie's purchase of Le Chateau de Tresserve, near Aix-les-Bains, where she spent lavishly. She bought plants enthusiastically wherever she went, and bought both well and unwisely: Henri Correvon, whose nurseries in Geneva were famed in America as well as Europe, thought her stupidly extravagant for paying transport costs for plants for Warley from him, when she could have found them perfectly well in Britain. But by now Ellie was caught in a spiralling enthusiasm, almost a mania for buying and planting, always of the best, always what she wanted: was she buying a bulwark against the blows to her life that she knew must come?
In August 1891, close to her sister's 33rd birthday, Rose Willmott married Robert Berkeley and went to live at Spetchley Park in Worcestershire: as Spetchley is about as far across England as one can get from south Essex, the question arises that - though it is said that Rose married for love - did she also rather like the idea of a life of her own? Frederick Willmott died the following year: Ellie was to inherit Warley Place, and when her mother died in 1898 she assumed her grown-up name, Ellen, by which she was becoming well-known. Mrs Willmott's death released a further inheritance to her daughters, and the second "cottage" establishment at Warley was made over to Rose for her visits "home," though Ellen had charge of all the gardens.
Now bereft of her family, Ellen took the horticultural world by storm. She joined the Royal Horticultural Society, which demanded more than just paying a subscription in those days, she broached the male preserve of the Narcissus Committee and proceeded to win four consecutive Gold Medals for her daffodils, which were her first great passion. At Warley they flowered in yellow, cream and white rivers, drifts and seas, all across the vast lawns and under the trees. She named her hybrids for her favourite people - `Mrs Berkeley', `Robert Berkeley' and little lost `Ada': she had over 600 different species and hybrid daffodils collected into a living museum in her walled gardens, and collections of tulips, crocuses and irises from all over the world. She worked on irises with Professor Michael Foster at Cambridge, she earned the respect of all the experts, and was elected a fellow of the Linnean Society. She visited the great gardener, Gertrude Jekyll, at Munstead Wood in Surrey, and perhaps they discussed their shared enthusiasm for photography, each with her own darkroom, and another shared interest in wood carving and inlaid work, which Ellen had just taken up with the purchase of an expensive German lathe. Jekyll's Munstead garden of 15 acres, a small selling nursery and perhaps a dozen gardeners was extremely modest beside the expanses of Warley, approaching 100 gardeners and a household that ran to three footmen and kept several carriages. But the older woman - Jekyll was 52 in 1896, Ellen 37 - was enormously respected and famous for her books and articles: Ellen clearly decided that she must write books. For Queen Victoria's Jubilee, when the RHS instituted the Victoria Medal of Honour, its highest award, for 60 horticultural greats, Gertrude Jekyll and Ellen were listed with 58 men: Miss Jekyll graciously dubbed Ellen "the greatest of all living women gardeners".
Unlike Jekyll, Ellen was not interested in garden design, though she could plant as "artistically" as anyone, but she had amassed a phenomenal knowledge of plants. She presented Kew with a collection of 15,000 sheets of herbarium specimens of European natives, and it is said that she grew over 100,000 different species and cultivars of trees, shrubs and flowering plants at Warley, which was spoken of in the same breath of awe as Kew or Edinburgh's Botanics. Tempted, as gardeners always are, by the lure of the exotic, she bought a Mediterranean garden, La Boccanegra, near Ventimiglia on the Ligurian coast just east of Monaco: it was almost next door to Sir Thomas Hanbury's La Mortola, another pinnacle of plant paradise which she desired to emulate. Sir Thomas had just bought the land at Wisley for the RHS's new garden, of which Ellen was a trustee, and it is tempting to imagine the hotly competitive, planting companionship that might have developed between two eccentrically-English neighbours in that Ligurian heaven, but it was not to be, for Hanbury died in 1907, two years after Ellen's arrival. Extending her range still farther, she partly-financed the plant hunter Ernest H Wilson's third expedition to China, also in 1907. Her support was vital to Wilson and his boss, Charles Sprague Sargent, the autocratic director of Harvard's Arnold Arboretum: they named a Himalayan plumbago with beautiful blue flowers for her, Ceratostiama willmottianum, now a popular garden favourite. To Sargent she confessed "my plants and my gardens come before anything in life for me, and all my time is given up to working in one garden or another, and when it is too dark to see the plants themselves, I read or write about them".
It was not quite that simple, for when she was in England there were committees and correspondence and the endless inter-visiting that feeds the curiosity of gardeners: Queen Alexandra and several princesses visited Warley. Also, Ellen had her music, she played the piano and violin - her violin was a Stradivarius - and concerts and musical evenings were part of her life. And then, with her three large gardens - Warley, Tresserve and La Boccanegra - there was the travelling: I picture her, the Edwardian travelling lady, in duster coat and big hat swathed in voile, with loads of expensive luggage and her devoted maid, Lalla Burge, in tow, trekking from London to the Haute-Savoie, then round to Ventimiglia, in a year- long cavalcade of journeyings and returns. She was always beautiful and beautifully dressed, and undoubtedly umbrella-armed, directing and warning the unfortunates who handled her crates of plants, tenderly bedded in straw and moss. Her arrivals must have been spectacular, house and garden thrown into a frenzy of changes that were hardly accomplished before it was time to move on: Ellen was dictatorial, disorganised and erratic, traits undoubtedly bringing out the worst in sullen servants (a fire at Chateau de Tresserve was caused by a careless servant's candle) or sly tradesmen, but those who got used to her - everyone at Warley - were devoted. Still shadowy, Ellen brings to mind the more vivid presence of the American novelist and garden fanatic, Edith Wharton, making her own imperial progresses from Pavilion Colombe outside Paris, to London, to her garden at Hyeres in Provence, during those same Edwardian years: I wonder if they ever met?
Ellen's first book, Warley Garden in Spring and Summer, appeared in 1909, with still more wonders revealed: imagine a walled garden with paved paths winding through drifts of lilies, primula, delphiniums and verbascum spires, the pavings nestling in carpets of pinks and saxifrages, and hundreds of rare alpine flowers. The rocky valley of miniature ravines that Backhouse and his sons had built now flowered in a crazy-geographer's world - alpines side by side with plants from New Zealand, those of the Andes sheltering others from Greenland, Kashmir next to California, the Cordilleras and the heights of Pamir. Everything was immaculately labelled and, though hectic geographically, the arrangements allowed just those comparisons that horticulturists and botanists loved to experience. But Ellen's latest and strongest passion was a very English one, for roses - the nurseryman Correvon judged her collection, needless to say, one of the best in Britain, and she grew them at La Boccanegra as well. Her ambition was to publish the finest coloured monograph The Genus Rosa, which would topple the famous Redoubte's Les Roses, and be equally desirable to collectors of art or botanical drawing. She had spent years bringing her chosen subjects into flower, about 140 different rose species, to be captured in watercolour plates by the landscape painter and botanical illustrator, Alfred Parsons. Parsons was approaching 60, a crusty bachelor and friend of Henry James and the Cotswold gardening set, and by the time he had accomplished some 40 lovely plates of the roses he had clearly had his fill of Ellen's peremptory summonses across England, or Europe, at all hours and in all weathers, to respond to the needs of a capricious flower. The Genus Rosa is enshrined in history as a publishing farrago: Parsons became argumentative and difficult over the printing of his plates, Ellen kept changing her mind, was abroad when decisions were needed, and was late with her copy for the text, and in-between the long-suffering John Murray was trying to salvage a project in which the costs went haywire. When The Genus Rosa made its debut in 1910 it was a tremendous disappointment, and only 260 of the 1,000 copies produced were sold.
Somehow the publisher, John Murray, scraped up the pieces of this disaster and survived, but for Ellen her most darling child, her book of roses, was the beginning of the end. It transpired that her Chateau de Tresserve had not been insured for the fire, and restoration had cost her dearly - more dearly undoubtedly as she was an absentee proprietress. Murray had lent her money against the success of The Genus Rosa and there was no success. She had started borrowing from her father's old firm, and even her friends were telling her she must cut back. She had to ask her head gardener, James Preece at Warley, to leave; she tried to let the unoccupied Warley properties and La Boccanegra, she sold family treasures, including the Amati and Stradivarius violins, and took out additional mortgages against the sale of Tresserve. Finally, her father's old partner, one of her ablest supporters, she thought, declared himself bankrupt. Then came the war.
Things got rapidly worse. The army took over the Warley estate and much of her beautiful planting was destroyed. At La Boccanegra the tenant, Lady Angela Forbes, rooted out the fabulous roses. Her horticultural friends, Sir Frank Crisp at Henley on Thames and Canon Ellacombe, the gentle bearded patriarch of Britton in Gloucestershire who had been one of her Victoria Medal of Honour companions, both died. Her dear Lalla Burge, who had brushed her hair, put out her clothes and been her travelling companion for 20 years, also died. After the war came the worst blow of all, her sister Rose died on 21 August 1922, two days after Ellen's 64th birthday, of cancer: for two years her writing paper carried thick black borders.
Ellen's last decade was one of increasingly empty horticultural honours paralleled by personal tragedies. She was awarded a medal by the Royal National Rose Society, and she was arrested on a charge of shoplifting in Regent Street. She was elected to the prestigious RHS Flora Committee (though laid low with a bad bout of pneumonia) and the RHS Lily Committee. But with Tresserve and La Boccanegra long gone, she started to sell her beautiful possessions in order to survive. The impression remains of a callous committee life, carried on in bare rooms along all those polished mahogany corridors of the RHS headquarters in Vincent Square, where no one cared what happened to you after you had decided the fate of a lily, and left the building. In those days Vincent Square was about as welcoming to women as the Long Room at Lord's: they thought well of Miss Jekyll, who was frumpish, ancient and absent, but Ellen, patently once so beautiful, with her still fine if old-fashioned clothes and her persistent enthusiasms, was useful, but a nuisance. Did they even notice, I wonder, when she left for the last time? She died at Warley in the early morning of 26 September 1934, probably from a heart attack, and alone.
Warley Place and her belongings that remained were put up for auction; after another war the buildings were gutted, and though the park and gardens remained in private ownership, they were leased to Essex Naturalists' Trust as a nature reserve, surely the final ignominy for a garden. Nature has resumed control, with a wilderness of obtuseness and poignancy that it is hard to evaluate: It is now a triple SI - a site of special scientific interest - but not, I imagine, for Miss Willmott's ghosts. The waves of blue and gold, of crocuses, scilla, aconites and narcissi still sweep back each spring, many of her fine trees must survive in the anonymity of the tangled woodland, and the rocky ravine of millstone grit that Backhouse built for her first Warley enterprise still sparkles with water and the vivid emeralds of ferns and lichens. For the rest, I can best ask you to imagine Kew Gardens, the day after the end of the world.
Other ghosts survive in the willmottiae and warleyensis hybrids of shrubs, narcissus, primula, roses and tulips that fill our gardens. One plant above all, more appropriately named than any, is the tall, elegant form of sea holly, with silvery-blue thistly heads, each with a translucent silver and exceedingly prickly ruff, Eryngium giganteum, unofficially known as `Miss Willmott's Ghost'.
But if the job of ghosts is to wait around for retribution, then the sea holly will be with us for a while. I don't know why I feel such a sense of betrayal on Ellen Willmott's behalf; I do know that I'm not the only one. If Willmott pere had been less indulgent, if he had given her a better education and put a business head on her shoulders, then maybe we should have Warley still. If she had called in at Giverny and persuaded Monet away from his waterlillies to paint her more exciting garden, instead of the peevish Alfred Parsons, then the sale of one painting would bring back Warley. But would she have been such an impassioned obsessive gardener if she had made calculated judgements, for it was her passion that set her apart. She didn't just throw money at her gardens, she threw herself entirely into their creation, to the detriment of any personal relationships, to getting married, to getting an heir, things any sensible person would have done. No sensible person, I hasten to add, ever made a garden to equate with Warley: truly great gardens are only made by obsessives and loners, who invariably bankrupt themselves in the process - Charles Hamilton at Painehill, Beckford at Fonthill, that crooked Chancellor of the Exchequer Alslabie's sublime Studley Royal, depressive Shenstone at The Leasowes, and many more - especially English mavericks in Mediterranean lands - down to the dapper Major Johnstone's Hidcote Manor and La Serre de la Madone near Menton. Miss Willmott's ghost would be happy in their company.
Most disturbing of all are the thoughts that Warley slipped through holes in the safety net of conservation by being in the wrong place at the wrong time. When she was busily a trustee, watching the benefactors pouring their money into a patch of Surrey sand for the RHS garden at Wisley, did it ever occur to her that they might have had Warley instead, ready- made? But Essex was not Surrey, and in the gardening snobbery of the 20th century never would be. (However Warley does find itself "conveniently" between junctions 28 and 29 of the M25.) When she was equally busy on committee work, did she ever think she should be on the council and grow rhododendrons, and then her garden would be saved? Committees worked with plants, the council was politics, so that answers that - but Warley did grow rare azaleas and rhododendrons, although not enough. They had to sweep through valleys and coves and across mountainsides, as at Wakehurst, Nymans, Sheffield Park, Glendurgan, Trengwainton, Bodnant or Rowallane and be overlooked by a "great" and preferably Palladian house to qualify for the National Trust (and Warley Place was only a small and rather pretty vaguely-Palladian house). Then after the First World War, when Warley was struggling, there were hundreds if not thousands of gardens facing destruction. After Miss Willmott died in 1934, it was worse than ever, no one thought of saving houses and gardens, they were intent on saving themselves.
It was the young woman who had come to gardening "at the ripe old age of 22", Vita Sackville-West, who helped to change things. In 1948 (when she was 56, and reviving her already famous garden at Sissinghurst after its wartime neglect), she joined a committee of the RHS and the National Trust to save gardens for their own sakes. Her immediate target was Hidcote Manor - as Major Johnstone wanted to retire to his French garden - and so Hidcote became the first garden to be taken over on behalf of us all. Slowly, as the National Trust gathered in neglected acres, the conservation bandwagon began to roll, and a ground-swell of interest in garden history, people talking to people around the kitchen tables of the land, developed into the Garden History Society, founded in 1965.
Apart from a sense that some justice is due to Ellen Willmott, to make up for pettifogging horticultural jealousies and bitter neglect, the presence of happy ghosts of gardens past imparts an ineffable balm to the living. Dozens of projects have shown this to be particularly attractive to the young - whose lives are so often imprisoned in tarmac yards and mean streets, breeding a disaffection and distrust for the earth they inhabit that has already reached epidemic proportions, and bodes ill for us all. But that is another story. Ellen's Warley has come into conversations again: the volunteers who have tended it for what is now Essex Wildlife Trust, know it to be a marvellous and magical place, and perhaps one day it may be possible to gently recall it to life. Eryngium giganteum `Miss Willmott's Ghost' can perhaps be planted, frequently and prominently, to supervise. And, in case you ask, was there not one of the happy gardening children with which I started, who had no gardening life? Wilfred Owen, who gardened so passionately, who attended botany lectures and sought out gardens wherever he want, gave up his love in 1913. His sonnet When Late I Viewed the Gardens of Rich Men goes some way to explain that as he could not stay, he would carry the names and memories of his "darling blossoms" with him: and so he went to war. Perhaps one day Warley could find a corner for the ghost of Wilfred the gardener, too. n
Adapted by Jane Brown from her book `The Pursuit of Paradise, a Social History of Gardens and Gardening', published by HarperCollins on 20 September at pounds 19.99. To order copies of `The Pursuit of Paradise' at pounds 17.99, p&p free, please call 0870 900 2050 (24 hours) quoting reference 825Q.