Obituary: Alvilde Lees-Milne

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The Independent Online
THE FIRST time I met Alvilde, writes Lady Dorothy Heber-Percy, was before the war, at a luncheon party given by John Sutro. I was at once impressed by her sparkle and sophistication. But it wasn't until well after the war, when she and Jim were married and living at Alderley, in Gloucestershire, that we became friends and I came increasingly to value the infectious enjoyment she brought to all aspects of life.

If there was criticism to be made she enjoyed the criticising and took a most lively and sympathetic interest in all one's ups and downs. Her gardens and homes glowed and sparkled with a reflection of her own personality.

Alvilde Bridges, gardener and writer: born London 13 August 1909; married 1933 Anthony, 3rd Viscount Chaplin (died 1981; one daughter; marriage dissolved), 1951 James Lees-Milne; died Badminton, Avon 18 March 1994.

ALVILDE LEES-MILNE was a garden maker of great distinction. She also had a talent for friendship. The daughter of a general, Sir Tom Bridges, she had a fierce and fearless character, nor did she suffer fools gladly, but her curiosity about others resulted in many friendships with a wide range of people. Nancy Mitford once described her as a saintly friend and she was, for those who knew her well, 'someone one could talk to about anything', but to others she could appear brusque or irritable, perhaps because she was shy.

Her first husband, the third Viscount Chaplin, was a considerable naturalist and with him she travelled to see animals and plants in the wild. After the marriage foundered she settled in France in a house which the Princesse Edmond de Polignac had bequeathed to her at Jouy en Josas, near Paris. Later, when she married the architectural historian and writer James Lees-Milne, they lived off and on at Roquebrune, where she made one of her earliest gardens and enjoyed the company of musicians, painters and writers. Poulenc, Cocteau, Satie, Sutherland and Maugham were all visitors to the Lees-Milnes' house in post-war France.

Influenced perhaps by the time she had spent there, Alvilde Lees-Milne's gardens always had a French flavour. Traces of le desordre Britannique were not to be tolerated. The outdoor-room style of garden which Lawrence Johnston had originated at Hidcote and which Vita Sackville-West developed at Sissinghurst was executed with even more chic by Alvilde Lees-Milne.

But she adored the formal layout filled with informal planting at Sissinghurst. Its famous owner was a close friend and Alvilde Lees-Milne used to say that her passion for gardening was entirely thanks to Vita's influence. Vita certainly gave her advice on what to plant. A letter survives with suggestions for a north-facing flower-bed: 'Peonies would not mind. Hydrangeas? The lace cap sort . . . Lily of the valley, Polyanthus, Trilliums.'

All these flowers and many others new and old would appear in Alvilde's gardens, but she would add to them. Neat hedges of box with cones and balls and spirals, trimmed as only the French know how, framed and accented her collections of plants in a way that had nothing in common with Sissinghurst. Vita's desire for flowers to arrange themselves 'neither by hap nor hazard' was not Alvilde's style.

The two English gardens that she made at Alderley Grange, in Gloucestershire, and latterly at Essex House, at Badminton, were inspiring to the many visitors who flocked to see them and the present fashion for topiary and box is probably her legacy. Her rigorous self-discipline is less copiable, which may be our loss. All gardeners suffer from wanting to grow every plant they see and in today's small plots unity is rare.

The large gardens which she created for clients like Mick Jagger, President Valery Giscard d'Estaing and the Queen of Jordan are admired by those who have seen them, but it is perhaps for her own last garden at the gates of Badminton that she deserves to be best remembered and imitated. Less than half an acre in size, on an awkward and cold site, it is a model of restrained variations on her particular theme. She maintained it even in old age with very little help.

She was, Rosemary Verey recalls, 'brilliant at her roses and climbers - at colour and shape'. Where Vita had Harold to keep her in check, Alvilde had her own sense of restraint. It is sad that she never wrote much about the gardens she made. With Rosemary Verey she edited the best-selling The Englishwoman's Garden (1980). This was followed by The Englishman's Garden (1982) and she then turned her attention to interiors, collaborating with the photographer Derry Moore on The Englishman's House (1984) and The Englishman's Room (1986). None of these books give any sense of the sort of woman she was.

As a member of the National Trust Gardens Panel for five years she occasionally found it difficult to see the point of gardens not made in her own unerring style. But John Sales, Chief Gardens Adviser to the National Trust, describes her as one of the most original gardeners of our time. His enduring memory is of driving her at 90 miles an hour to the sound of Chopin. 'Can't you go faster?' Alvilde used to say. 'I can't stand careful drivers.'

(Photograph omitted)