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She 'Paints' With Flowers to Color Gardens : Penelope Hobhouse: 'Gardening is not just a matter of aesthetics. . . . You can have your senses jarred by inappropriate planting.'

November 10, 1986|BEVIS HILLIER | Times Staff Writer

The photographs of Penelope Hobhouse on the jackets of her many books on gardening are by no means posed studio portraits with every lacquered hair in place, or with the chin nestled winsomely against a telephone receiver. The British writer is shown as a wind-swept, outdoor woman, beaming broadly, squinting slightly into the sunlight and holding a hoe or rake. No Barbara Cartland, she.

Hobhouse's specialty is color in the garden--how to "paint" with drifts of blue flowers, swathes of yellow or "exclamation marks" of red. In 1985, she published "Color in Your Garden" (Little, Brown; $35). But as those book-jacket photographs suggest, Hobhouse is not an airy-fairy garden beautician. She is thoroughly practical. She not only calls a spade a spade, she knows how to use one.

Hobhouse also knows which plants will grow congenially next to each other. "Gardening is not just a matter of aesthetics," she says. "If you put together one lot of plants that like very damp, acid soil, next to Mediterranean-type plants that like dry, stony soil, it's not really going to be a success. You can do it as a short-term measure, but to a real gardener it doesn't look right. You can have your senses jarred by what I call 'inappropriate planting.'

"It's something that I do bang on about a great deal, especially to garden clients such as (Baron) Elie de Rothschild (whom Hobhouse is advising on his gardens at Royaumont, near Chantilly, France), because he doesn't always agree about that. And eventually I do usually get my way, because in a garden things must look as if they could happen in nature."

Hobhouse, 56, would be the first to acknowledge that the idea of "painting with flowers" is not new. It was conceived by the English gardener Gertrude Jekyll (1843-1932), says Hobhouse, who has compiled an anthology of Jekyll's writings. Jekyll was trained as a painter but worsening sight forced her to turn to gardening instead. In her garden theories Jekyll was influenced by the French Impressionists' artistic theories, including those of Claude Monet, who combined painting and horticulture in his gardens at Giverny, France.

Hobhouse agrees with almost all of Jekyll's ideas: for example, the idea that it is best to treat blues with contrasts rather than with harmonies. "The only thing I don't think she was quite so good at was the architectural side; I think she forgot about color being density and architecture casting shadows. As an artist, she knew how color worked, and she saw the garden as a flat canvas."

Jekyll's color theories will be prominently represented in a talk Hobhouse is giving at 7 p.m. Wednesday at a "champagne gourmet gala" in the Crystal Ballroom of the Biltmore Hotel. "I'm going to try and explain why I think English gardens are good," Hobhouse says. "It's not going to be a historical talk at all, but a talk about the English gardener's attitude to aesthetics in the garden; so there will be much about color, and pictures of some of the best gardens in England. The theme is: This is what makes a good garden--inspiration, structure, color."

The gala is being sponsored by the Friends of French Art; the proceeds will help to restore French art in Paris and in San Francisco. (For information about the evening, call Claire Weiner at (213) 276-4961.)

Penelope Hobhouse was born Penelope Chichester-Clark about 30 miles from Belfast, Northern Ireland. (Her brother, James Chichester-Clark, now Lord Moyola, was prime minister of Northern Ireland in the late 1960s.) "I wish I could say that being brought up in Ireland had made a huge difference to my gardening life," Hobhouse says. "But my father, a naval officer, died when I was 3, my mother wasn't a gardener, and I just thought gardening was dead-heading pansies (pinching off the dead flowers), that sort of thing. I didn't enjoy it very much."

Hobhouse did not become interested in gardening until she was 25, when she was taken to see the garden of Tintinhull House, in Somerset, England. "It was the first time I became aware that gardening was an art and that you had to arrange plants, colors, foliage architecturally. It just hadn't hit me at all. So that was when I was 25; and, amazingly, when I was 50 I was given the job of running the Tintinhull garden by the National Trust (of Great Britain)--which people can hardly believe, but it's true."

After earning a degree in economics at Cambridge, England, where she was a contemporary and friend of the novelist Simon Raven, Penelope Chichester-Clark married Paul Hobhouse, a farmer, in 1952. Between 1955 and 1967 the couple lived in a farmhouse on the estate of Hobhouse's family mansion, Hadspen House, Somerset, and on the farmhouse grounds she made her first gardening experiments. A classics don at Cambridge, John Raven (no relation of Simon) was an amateur botanist and gardener and gave her advice. "I wrote to him all the time," she recalls, "and said 'Can I do this?' and 'Can I do that?' "

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