I have wanted to write about this book for several years, not just because the words and illustrations are beautiful but because I turn to it on tough days, days when I’m not quite sure how to be. I escape into it in the same way I escape into crocheting, drawing or into the wood behind our cottage.
Clare Leighton was one of the most accomplished wood engravers of the last century, and she studied at the Slade and Central School of Arts and Crafts in the 1920s. She was passionate about the countryside and her work captures not only the tiniest macro details of leaf and petal, but also images of the people who worked on the land between the wars. Her engravings of farming seem timeless. They remind me of cave paintings, and are of scenes that must have been messy and noisy and yet each has an abstract, pattern-like element. There are repeated motifs and shapes that almost seem geometric. There may be proper terms for this pattern-like way of making pictures. I’m neither an art critic nor an expert. All I know is that my brain really likes it.
Leighton was a writer as well as an artist and her book Four Hedges, published in 1935, is the story of the garden that she made with her partner Noel Brailsford in the early 1930s. They bought a rather exposed, unpromising plot of greyish soil in the Chilterns and gradually turned it into a flourishing garden filled with mown grass paths, flowerbeds, trees and wildlife. The book describes the sequences of flowers that emerge as the garden moves through the year, the tasks required to maintain hedge, tree and bed and the small triumphs and frustrations inherent in trying to tame nature to your will and make it grow how you wish it to.
Clare Leighton’s reverence and delight at witnessing birds nesting and raising young in the hedges she and Noel plant is clear in this image of a female blackbird brooding her eggs in an apple tree in April. I adore this engraving and when I found a similar tiny scene of blackbird fledglings in a nest in our own hedge earlier this year it’s hard to describe how thrilled I felt.
Blackbirds make nests in hedges up and down the country – it’s not a rare occurrence (there are more than 5 million breeding pairs of blackbirds in Britain), and yet the hours that the two birds will have spent crafting that perfect cup from shreds of dry grass and the almost luminous blue eggs, guarded and warmed by each pair of birds, culminating in a brood of squawky young is humbling and wonderful.
Gardening can provide solace (it certainly does for me) and there is evidence that digging and contact with soil can have an antidepressant effect, caused by the benign soil bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae. Leighton touches on this in Four Hedges, in a passage about a friend who had just lost her father…
‘…she was discordant and hurt, and life to her was unrhythmic. With visible release she dashed into the orchard to slash at the dandelions; as she destroyed them her discords were resolved. After two days of weed slaughtering her face was calm. The garden had healed her.’
Clare Leighton’s words are lyrical, vivid and soothing and her engravings transport you to that patch of ground in the Chilterns over 80 years ago. This book is one I’d recommend to any nature lover, gardener or anyone who is feeling out of kilter or sad. Four Hedges is like an extended, illustrated poem about plants and the seasons and I read the entire book two or three times over in late 2008 and early 2009 during a very difficult time. There is no doubt that it helped me through:
‘Autumn begins now truly to clutch at the garden, gently showing the marks of its fingers in heavy morning dews.’ September
‘And then, on a dismal afternoon at the end of the month, I hear a particularly sweet bird song. Outside, in one of the flower beds, is a goldfinch on a cosmos plant. He has discovered that the cosmos is in seed. As I am enjoying the beauty of his red and black and gold, he flies off, leaving the flowerbed colourless and dull. I am turning from the window, disappointed at the shortness of his visit, when I hear a rush of wings and look out again at the flower bed. The pioneer goldfinch has returned, bringing with him a ‘charm’ of the gaily coloured birds.’ October
The current edition of Four Hedges is published by Little Toller, with an excellent foreword by Carol Klein. I have this version and it is becoming slightly dog-eared from so much reading. I confess to having 3 copies though, rather too many for simply ‘just in case I lose a one’ – and I want someone else to have Four Hedges; someone who will enjoy it as much as I do, or someone who might need it just now.
I’m giving away my beautiful hardback 1970 edition. If you’d like a chance to have this book leave a comment below and I’ll chose the new owner next Friday (15th September).
Oh and I’ll be blogging much more regularly here in the coming months as Autumn and Winter really take hold. If you’d like ideas on how to use craft to fend off winter blues and my nature diaries delivered to your inbox you can sign up in my sidebar. ->