The Keepers of Eden

This book recounts an extraordinary love story in remarkable times. It also brings home the cataclysmic disruption to society brought about by the two world wars. WW1 all but wiped out an entire generation of young men and, in a society with an numerical imbalance between the sexes, left a generation of young women with poor prospects of marriage. Society’s norms forbade the love of others. In those challenging times some found an unconventional arrangement which challenged societal norms but which nonetheless served that deep human need to love and to be loved.

Humphrey Waterfield (1908 – 1971) spent his early years between his parents’ winter home, Clos du Peyronnet, in Menton on the French Riviera and schooling in England, going on to Eton and Christchurch College, Oxford, where he was awarded a first class honours in history. However, he pursued his love of art, studying at Ruskin College and later at the Slade. His interest in gardening developed after he met Nancy Tennant in 1933 and the purchase of a three-acre plot in Essex where he built a house and, with her, developed Hill Pasture garden. In later years he was very highly regarded as a garden designer and Hugh Johnson (Tradescant in the Garden) described him in 1976 as “the most sensitive and original designers of gardens of the last generation.”

Nancy Tennant (1897 – 2003) was born to a wealthy family and was possibly best remembered for her extensive voluntary work, particularly for her role in the Women’s Institutes. She was Chairman of the International Committee of Women’s Institutes which aimed to spread the movement across Europe and was elected Vice-Chairman of the National Federation of Women’s Institutes in 1940 and was particularly central in the development of their musical activities. She travelled Britain organising and judging choirs and conducted the 1946 massed choirs of the WI when they sang ‘Jerusalem’ in the Albert Hall.

Humphrey and Nancy met in 1932 when he was 24 and she 35. A strong friendship developed as they shared a passion for art, nature, gardening and travelling but marriage was not imaginable. Nancy was, by the mores of the time, past marrying age and Humphrey, had he lived in more liberal times, might have sought male companionship in life. The garden at Hill Pasture was their Eden, planned and started together just as the Second World War broke out. Humphrey was a conscientious objector and served in the ambulance service throughout the war while Nancy oversaw the continued development of the garden in his absence. Although a narrative of the development of Hill Pasture runs through the book it is the garden’s creators, Humphrey and Nancy, and not the garden who are the main characters of this book.

After the war they were able to turn their attention to the garden in Menton, creating one of the horticultural jewels of the Riviera. Their relationship continued for the rest of their lives, an unconventional one but an extraordinarily happy one nonetheless. It is a very moving account of two wonderful people, richly revealed through previously unpublished material, letters and photographs, to which the author was given access by the families. I found it a very heartening and moving read.

[Eden’s Keepers, The Lives and Gardens of Humphrey Waterfield and Nancy Tennant, Sarah Barclay, Clearview Books, London, 2022, Hardback, 223 pages, £25, ISBN: 978-1908337-634]


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