Deborah Kellaway

Teacher turned garden writer
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Deborah Violet Newton, teacher, gardener and writer: born Melbourne, Victoria 22 November 1922; staff, Camden School for Girls 1966-87; columnist, The Oldie 1995-2006; married 1952 Bill Kellaway (one son, two daughters); died London 7 January 2006.

Deborah Kellaway was a garden writer whose work was informed by her extensive knowledge of both English literature - she had been by profession a teacher, retiring in 1987 - and practical gardening.

She wrote two books about her own gardens, The Making of an English Country Garden (1988) and The Making of Town Gardens (1989), as well as a sensitive and learned commentary for Favourite Flowers (1994), a book of watercolours by Elizabeth Blackadder. In 1995, the year she began contributing a column to The Oldie, she wrote A Family of Flowers: Clematis and Ranunculaceae, which used her extensive botanical knowledge as the basis from which to offer practical advice, and also edited The Virago Book of Women Gardeners.

Gardens had been a part of her early life in Australia, where she was born Deborah Newton in 1922, the daughter of a distinguished surgeon, and his English wife, Cicely. During Deborah's childhood, her father had doubled the size of the family garden in Melbourne, calling on Edna Walling, Australia's answer to Gertrude Jekyll, to design it. Deborah also had an Australian uncle who was an enthusiastic plantsman.

But she had no hands-on experience until the early years of her marriage to Bill Kellaway (whom she had met at Oxford while taking her second degree) when she was living in London in a house near Hampstead Heath. Here, Deborah Kellaway learnt to be a gardener, a process she described in her book The Making of Town Gardens, which also discussed the treatment of other small plots.

To learn, Kellaway studied books borrowed from the local library and kept notebooks of suitable plants. She was meticulously scholarly in her recording of her observations as well as delighting in anecdotes such as the comment of an experienced gardening neighbour who, having found her weeding with a hoe, said, "Ah, that's what I should be doing." After five years, she had turned the derelict narrow strip into a series of discrete spaces, including one in which there was a fig tree perfectly sited in a semi-circular bed.

Kellaway's first book, The Making of an English Country Garden, tells of the battle to recreate a garden in Norfolk. From 1965, when they bought the house at Bressingham, Deborah and Bill spent most weekends and holidays in Norfolk, and Deborah worked tirelessly on the garden right until her death.

It was very large and very derelict: when they bought it, the large island bed, once well planted by Alan and Adrian Bloom, had disappeared. The lawns were overgrown with couch grass and, hardest of all to remedy, there was no view. How the Kellaways overcame these problems through a combination of vision and tenacity is inspiringly told. Here, as in all her other books, Deborah's depth of botanical knowledge, her descriptive powers and her light touch are delightful as well as impressive.

She took off in a new literary direction when, 11 years ago, she was asked to write a gardening column for The Oldie. With its particular combination of literary references and detailed knowledge ranging from the arcane to the distinctly practical, all in the most elegant prose, Kellaway's column was an immediate success. She followed it up by appearing at Oldie lunches and, most recently, with Oldie garden tours where the same virtues, together with careful preparation, won her new admirers.

But her success as a gardener should not obscure her influential and inspirational role as a teacher for more than 20 years. After two first class degrees in English Literature - at Melbourne University and Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford - and a period teaching in Australia and writing on Virginia Woolf, in 1966 Kellaway took a part-time job teaching English at Camden School for Girls.

Her influence was enduring. Ex-pupils, including the actress Emma Thompson, still tell of the impact of her lessons, which combined a liberating mixture of excitement with a total absence of didacticism. She opened literature to the most gifted specialist students and to the historians and scientists alike. Like all the best teachers she convinced her pupils that they too could understand and, with her help, they did. Her colleagues in all departments recognised her distinction, admired her style and relished her company.

The Kellaways were the most thoughtful and conscientious hosts, in London and in the country. Despite the long hours of gardening, Deb thought out and prepared delicious meals. The cottage was cold but there would, in the evenings, be a warm log fire burning beneath a copper hood (and hot-water bottles in every bed). Deb was never a gardening bore. She once said she felt "gardening fills a need and restores a faith" but was quick to add as an afterthought, "But all gardening is a nuisance unless you like it."

Elizabeth Eccleshare

Comments