Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Christo as I Remember Him

Rosa Steppanova first met Christo in 1992 when he came with Beth Chatto to visit her garden in Scotland. Rosa kindly emailed us this lovely article which she wrote about him for The Shetland Times in 2001 in celebration of Christo's 80th Birthday. Here it is now is for everyone to enjoy. Thank you Rosa.

TODAY Christopher Lloyd is celebrating his 80th birthday.
"That's the bed I was born in," he said casually as he opened the door to our room, a room with a magnificent four-poster bed and a magnificent view of an ancient pear tree, a fountain of Chilean bamboo and hoar-frosted lawn.

"The mattress has been changed since", he added equally casually. The garden at Great Dixter was laid out by Edward Lutyens and within its formal framework of yew hedges and topiary lies the playground where Lloyd enjoys himself, and has done since early childhood. There are scores of beautiful formal gardens in this country, but none I have visited has the vibrancy, the feeling of youth, vivaciousness and originality that Dixter has.

It's obvious that the gardener has never allowed himself to rest on his laurels. There are always some new plants he's excited about, or new plant combinations he's experimenting with, and during a visit these will be the first he'll show you. Not in an obvious way, he'll just lead you there, then watch for your reaction. If you don't react, he'll simply move on, if you pass the acid test he'll enthuse, but in a modest, dignified way, as befits a great plantsman: "Yes isn't that rather a good colour," or, "Yes, I'm quite pleased with that."

He takes credit where credit is due, and once, on remarking how perfectly-shaped one of his mahonias was, he retorted: "That's because we prune it."

He's renowned for his acerbic wit and has on more than one occasion alienated the horticultural establishment by calling a spade a spade. He's never been one to slavishly follow trends and fashions. Not one for "white gardens" or delicate pastel schemes, he's ruffled feathers with his daring colour combinations and caused furore when he replaced Dixter's traditional rose garden with an exotic planting of cannas, dahlias and bananas. Exotic gardens and juxtapositions of magenta and yellow have since become all the rage.

I first made Christopher's acquaintance in "The Adventurous Gardener", his seminal work, about 20 years ago. There he comes across as formidably knowledgeable, awe-inspiring, a man with a wicked sense of humour and one who doesn't suffer fools gladly. In person he is simply delightful, a kind and charming man with a springy head of white hair and a mischievous twinkle in his blue eyes. He's generous to a fault and I can't remember ever leaving Dixter without clutching a little assortment ofmuch-coveted young plants, dug up by Christopher during one of our gardenrounds.

Great houses can be forbidding places, cold, draughty and with an empty feel to them, especially those open to the public. When I first set eyes on Dixter Hall I said to myself: "The poor man, he must be rattling about like a pea in a pod in there."

He doesn't, he fills and warms all of that huge, ancient, timbered house. It's a wonderfully hospitable place. There are always flowers, arranged by the man himself,the subtle smell of beeswax, and in the winter, roaring log fires.

Christopher Lloyd is a phenomenon, a man of great energy and a vast range of skills and talents, one of our most influential gardeners, garden writers and horticultural lecturers, but I think he is above all these a "Lebenskuenstler". He knows how to enjoy life and the good things in life, how to forge and nourish friendships and how to indulge the senses.

He is a connoisseur of classical music and a regular visitor to Glyndebourne. You might find him stretched out like a cat in the grass, letting the sun warm his pelt, or sipping a glass of champagne on a Sunday morning "while the pious go to church." But this hedonistic playfulness is the reward of hard work, great discipline and strict adherence to routine

His culinary talents have been put on the wider map since the publication of Gardener Cook and in the kitchen of Great Dixter he reigns supreme. There's a lightness of touch (his is the best pastry I've ever tasted) and a simplicity to his cooking which brings out the best in the ingredients (and his dinner guests). There's also a seeming effortlessness to it all, brought about by his organisational skills and immaculate timing. Home-grown produce features large, from stewed fruit on the breakfast table to seasonal vegetables, always cooked to perfection. It was in his dining room I first tasted yellow raspberries and made friends with beetroot, simply baked in the oven - a revelation. It is one of my lasting regrets that I once had to turn downan invitation to lunch.

Over the 10 years I have known Christopher, he has mellowed a little with age, but he still roars and thunders at times, and he has eyes in the back of his head. Never let him catch you snipping off seed pods or taking shortcuts across the corner of a border. Only his dachshunds Dahlia and Canna are allowed to trespass now and again.

During one of our visits to Dixter, Anna, who was about five at the time, followed him to his study, and much to our surprise remained there while we packed the car and got ready for our journey north. Christopher Lloyd once met the great gardener Gertrude Jekyll, when he was a small boy and she a very old woman. A defining moment in his life, as Jekyll gave him a kind of gardener's blessing, and perhaps here, history was repeating itself. Convinced that he must have used his time with Anna to impart some (much needed) pearls of horticultural wisdom, I quizzed her impatiently as soon as we reached the main road: "Did he talk about plants?

Did he talk about gardens? What did he say?"

"He said shut the damn door."

Happy birthday, Christopher, and may you wield your trowel, pen and wooden spoon for many more years to come.


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