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Colvin, Brendalocked

(1897–1981)

Colvin, Brendalocked

(1897–1981)
  • Hal Moggridge

Brenda Colvin (1897–1981)

by unknown photographer, 1962

Colvin and Moggridge, Landscape Architects

Colvin, Brenda (1897–1981), landscape architect, was born on 8 June 1897 at Simla in India, where her father, Sir Elliot Graham Colvin (1861–1940), became resident in Kashmir (1902) and later agent to the governor-general in Rajputana (1905–17). Her mother, Ethel Bayley, was the elder daughter of Sir Stewart Colvin Bayley, who also served with distinction in India, as had previous generations of the Colvin family. She had a brother and a sister. Her earliest schooling was on a house boat on the River Jhelum, a childhood which she remembered for the wild flowers, almond blossom, orchards, and picnics on the banks of the lakes and in the gardens of the Shalimar. Formal education came later, when she lived with a family friend in a Hampton Court apartment and attended a variety of schools in England and France. She was fond of remarking that this background and upbringing classified her on the census as an illiterate immigrant.

In 1919 Colvin attended Swanley Horticultural College to study gardening and market work, preceding by a year Sylvia Crowe, her lifelong and sympathetic colleague. However, during the first year she became interested in the design course under Madeline Agar, a landscape architect trained in the United States then working on the rejuvenation of Wimbledon Common; she worked for two years as a pupil and foreman in Miss Agar's office. Then about 1922 Colvin founded her own practice, which remained at the centre of her endeavours throughout her long working life. For the next two decades she advised on the creation and improvement of gardens, both private and institutional, writing many articles on design with plants, a field in which she excelled. The few remaining black and white photographs of her early work show an architectural handling of texture and form in foliage design combined with a delicate overlay of flowers, sometimes like a short-lived mist over massy landforms. She was conscious of the need to arrange gardens to provide interest throughout the year and to achieve coherence of colour in both foliage and flowers. By 1939 she had advised on about 300 gardens. Her largest work before that date was an extensive addition to the garden at Zywiec in Poland for Archduke Charles Albert Habsburg; it is a measure of her reputation during the 1930s that she should have received such a commission.

No account of Brenda Colvin is complete without reference to the two books she wrote in the late 1940s. Trees for Town and Country, written with Jacqueline Tyrwhitt and published in 1947, describes, with fine line illustrations by S. R. Badmin, the character, size, and requirements of selected common trees, and was long a standard reference work. Land and Landscape, published in 1948, was a book of tremendous vision, an inspiration to all land-based professionals, in which the benefits of landscape architecture were lucidly expounded. A revised edition, dedicated to Geoffrey and Susan Jellicoe, was published in 1970. It became a standard textbook and was translated into Japanese. This classic work reviewed the state of the British landscape and foreshadowed movements promoting applied ecology and countryside conservation as the backbone of a sophisticated design philosophy. Its opening lines sum up Brenda Colvin's views:

The control which modern man is able to exert over his environment is so great that we easily overlook the power of the environment over man … We should think of this planet, Earth, as a single organism, in which humanity is involved. The sense of superior individuality which we enjoy is illusory. Man is a part of the whole through evolutionary processes, and is united to the rest of life through the chemistry of lungs and stomach; with air, food and water passing in constant exchange between the soil and the tissues of plant and animal bodies.

Colvin, Land and Landscape, 2

Land and Landscape arose from a memorable series of lectures delivered to students at the Architectural Association which had a direct influence on many post-war architects, leading them to see buildings as part of the landscape at large.

Finally in 1977 Colvin published privately a collection of poems and short prose statements under the title Wonder in a World. This very personal work belies the dry pessimism which she sometimes expressed about the world. It reveals both her sparkling intellect and a great joy in life; for instance: 'Well may we count our blessings and be grateful for the conditions on this planet so amazingly adapted to the evolution of the creative spirit of man' (Colvin, Wonder in a World, 19).

Writing and serving her profession occupied only the smaller part of Brenda Colvin's energies from 1945. Always the first demand on her time was design. Until about 1965 she practised from an office in Gloucester Place, London, which she shared with Sylvia Crowe (though they never worked as partners). After reaching the age of fifty she designed at least another 300 landscapes, most of which were carried out; some were small, some very large. She still designed many gardens, sometimes within a flowing but never a random line, always effortlessly planted. However, she had come to believe that the design of the landscape at large is a more significant contribution to human and terrestrial well-being. Therefore it was with delight that she accepted commissions to design extensive urban and industrial landscapes. These commissions arose in response to strategies being promoted by the landscape profession, that all construction work should include assessment and design of the landscape, and that schemes to disturb land should include creative ideas for its subsequent restoration.

Colvin was early to design one of the new generation of reservoirs, at Trimpley in Worcestershire (from 1962), and studied with the engineers means of integrating the bunding into its setting by judicious adding of soil along the face and an elegant detail of rockwork at water level on the inner concrete face. She designed the landscape for the new University of East Anglia, but fell out with the architect, Sir Denys Lasdun, because she insisted upon providing paths for students to walk across grassland and remodelling the landform alongside the buildings to look undisturbed. She ensured a natural setting, incorporating native habitats, for the university, which later became a centre for environmental studies. She designed industrial landscapes around several of the new generation of power stations, including Stourport (from 1952), Drakelow (from 1963), Rugeley (from 1963), and Eggborough (from 1961), emphasizing the need to work on a large scale compatible with the undertaking. Colvin fearlessly opposed proposals of which she did not approve. For example, she represented the opponents of a proposed electricity power line along the Thames at Goring Gap. Her colleague representing the promoters at a public inquiry, Dame Sylvia Crowe, could only agree with the principles which she expounded.

In 1962 Colvin was appointed landscape consultant for the rebuilding of Aldershot military town, a project on which she worked for over fifteen years. The macadam atmosphere of the barracks was slowly converted into a community in a woodland setting. This was achieved by perceiving that on the thin Bagshot gravels two fundamentally different types of landscape were needed. Trim grass with well-spaced trees provided military precision as a foil to naturally regenerating woodland in fenced enclosures. So effectively was nature called in to assist design that the original budget was halved in the face of inflation without loss of content. Aldershot was also given a new park: by extracting gravel an ornamental lake was created; behind this a long hill was built of urban rubbish and covered with the gravel. The project cost less than removing the rubbish. However, Colvin's tetchy capacity for effective tactlessness was illustrated at Aldershot, when she criticized the brigadier in command, in front of aghast subordinates, for allowing her planting to be poorly maintained. A particularly long-term project was Gale Common in Yorkshire (begun in 1962), a hill of waste coal ash from power stations, about a square mile in size and 50 metres high, designed with tracks and woods spiralling up the carefully profiled sides. These unapologetically man-made silhouettes, derived from the patterns created by ancient lynchets on chalk downs, illustrate Brenda Colvin's ideas about the connection between past and future, about time as a dimension in the creation of landscapes, and about aftercare as an essential corollary to design.

Brenda Colvin's whole life was devoted to landscape architecture, both to its practice and to the promotion of the profession. In 1951 she was elected president of the Institute of Landscape Architects, and was the first woman to be president of any of the environmental or engineering professions; she had been a founder member of the institute in 1929, and from that date she was re-elected for forty-seven years without a break as a member of council of the institute, a mark of her standing among her peers. In 1948 she was a British representative at the foundation of the International Federation of Landscape Architects. She served tirelessly on professional committees, and her tall, thin frame and distinguished profile were to be seen at meetings and conferences; while she was shy on social occasions, she was concise and unhesitatingly to the point when her profession was under consideration.

In 1969, at the age of seventy-one, with several long-term commissions in hand, Colvin converted her practice into the partnership of Colvin and Moggridge. Having formerly always worked on her own with only a few assistants, she started afresh, handing work on to younger colleagues. On this basis she initiated a practice which could gradually expand beyond her own lifetime to suit changing circumstances, discussing partnership policy and landscape ethics over lunches of asparagus freshly cut from the garden. She was appointed CBE in 1973.

Brenda Colvin died on 27 January 1981, unmarried, at her home, Little Peacocks, Filkins, in west Oxfordshire, where she had created around her home and office an exquisite small garden. She was buried in Filkins cemetery. She pursued her long professional life, starting when both landscape and women were equally undervalued, into an era when both began to receive recognition. Part of that recognition was the result of her own intellectual force, applied with dry wit, idealism, and energy to the art of landscape design.

Sources

  • S. Harvey, ed., Reflections on landscape: the lives and work of six British landscape architects (1987), 139–51
  • M. Emanuel, ed., Contemporary architects (1980)
  • H. T. Moggridge, The Garden, 106 (1981), 447–53
  • B. Colvin, Land and landscape, 2nd edn (1970)
  • B. Colvin, Wonder in a world (1977)
  • S. Harvey and S. Rettig, eds., Fifty years of landscape design (1985)
  • Brenda Colvin file, Landscape Institute Library
  • B. Colvin and J. Tyrwhitt, Trees for town and country (1947)
  • WWW, 1929–40
  • personal knowledge (2004)

Likenesses

  • photograph, 1962, Colvin and Moggridge, Lechlade and London [see illus.]
  • photograph, 1968, repro. in Harvey, ed., Reflections, 139

Wealth at Death

£118,615: probate, 16 April 1981, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

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