An insight into Christopher Lloyd

I received my copy of Dear Christo from Timberpress to review with mixed feelings.  I discovered Christopher Lloyd just 18 months to 2 years before he died and have accumulated a number of his books which I found a breath of fresh air.  I looked forward to the biography of Christopher Lloyd by Stephen Anderton but I was a little disappointed.  The book certainly gave you a good record of Christopher’s upbringing at Dixter at least half the book, it waltzed through his teaching career at Wye College and breezed through his later life at Dixter seemingly focussing more on hinting at his sexual preferences than really giving an insight into the man.  I put the book down feeling let down – I would have loved to have met Christopher Lloyd and I suppose I was hoping his biography would give  me more of an idea of the man.  I needn’t have worried since Dear Christo delivers this in buckets or should I say trugs!

The book is a compilation of thoughts, observations and anecdotes written by an alarmingly wide group of people not only from the gardeners but also from musicians, artists, writers and botanists.  As well as coming from a wide range of backgrounds they come from all over the world: America, Australia, South Africa, Europe. All knew Christopher Lloyd and I think all of them had visited Great Dixter at some time.  There are also contributions from people who work at the Great Dixter.  The book is the brain child of the Dixter Development Committee and all royalties from the sale of the book are paid to the Great Dixter Charitable Trust.

Whilst there is a little repetition in the book especially where many describe the approach to the house porch through the meadow, the apparent lack of light switches and in fact light in the house each contribution brings something new to the whole.  I knew that Christopher Lloyd was a well regarded gardener and wrote a weekly article for Country Life as well as regular contributions to other papers.  Reading this book I learnt that Christopher was a collector of people, as well as plants.  He liked people who were genuinely interested in the things he was  and he liked to bring them together in often what seemed like random groups at his legendary Dixter weekends.  Many talk about  how when you first stayed at Dixter there was a definite pecking order indicated by the allocation of bedrooms and jobs.  But what fascinated me was how Christopher Lloyd is seen by so many as having hugely  influenced their life.  There are some whose decision to pursue a career in horticulture was confirmed by a visit to Dixter, others who had a complete change of direction to follow a career in horticulture – some even go so far as to say that Christo and Great Dixter changed their life.  What an achievement! To have such an impact on one person is pretty special but on many is something quite outstanding!

Christo is portrayed as an eccentric, hardly a surprise, with a keen sense of humour, who loved people but did not suffer fools gladly.  Many write about how they went to Great Dixter clutching a notebook for fear of not being taken seriously by the great man and yet he himself always had a notebook when visiting gardens.  As Tom Fischer the Editor in Chief at Timberpress comments, Christopher Lloyd was a man of contradictions. Lloyd was able “to treat gardening with high seriousness as well  as a sense of fun; to have strong opinions and yet be willing to entertain dissenting views; to be a world authority on plants and yet insist on taking notes when visiting other (far lesser) gardens.

The book is split into 6 sections: Arrivals, Gardens and Gardening, The Plants, The House, Family, Visits and Christopher. I was a little disappointed that there wasn’t more made of his cooking as so many contributors mention the meals and in the Preface Rosemary Alexander says “the book includes his favourite recipes”.  There are no recipes but I will now be buying his cookbook Gardener Cook.  There is a lovely hard drawn map of Great Dixter in the book which is the first I have seen and really helps to put all the areas of garden you read about in this and in Christopher’s own books into context.  However, the thing I really liked, aside from the writing, was the inclusion of photos of Great Dixter including the inside of the house that I haven’t seen before.  I have a number of Christopher’s recent books and I found that the same or very similar photos came up time and again.

If I was pushed to find something to criticise about the book they would be little things.  There is meant to be a photo of a Magnolia ‘Galaxy’ instead it is a photo of a latticed window and it would be nice for all of the contributors to have some indication of their link to Great Dixter and Christopher Lloyd not just the ones who have written long pieces.  But these are niggles.  The book is a joy – I laughed out loud at places and was close to tears at others.  I know feel that I know a little more of the character of the man who has inspired me to trust my instincts in the garden and rely less of the text books.  I wished I had met him but Dear Christo will have to suffice and one day I may get to visit Great Dixter.

I think Fergus Garrett’s Preface to the book says it all: “His words in print remain his legacy and his influence burns bright in all of us be breathed life into.  He changed out lives and long may his memory last.”



Author: Helen Johnstone

I live in Malvern, Worcestershire and am a very keen gardener. I started the Patient Gardener Blog in January 2008 as a way of recording what was happening in my garden and connecting with other like-minded people. I started a second blog PatientGardener 365 January 2013 in order to try and post a photo a day to capture what is growing in my garden or places I have visited

12 thoughts on “An insight into Christopher Lloyd”

  1. Helen, thank you for this wonderful review. I will definitely get the book. I have all of Chistopher Lloyds books and had hoped to get to GD while he was still alive. Unfortunately that did not come to pass. Still I do hope to make it soon.

  2. How interesting to read your review Helen, as this is a book that I have been wondering about, as I have a lot of books written by Christopher Lloyd – and I would like to know more of the man himself.

    I will be putting it on my “wishlist”

  3. We studied his work in school and I have to say I was quite influenced. I have enjoyed your review here. For a book to elicit so much emotion upon reading it, says more than words can. I too want to experience the laughter and tears.

  4. Sandra – I am hoping to go to one of the GD study days this year or next, just need to get organised and find overnight accommodation

    Karen – yes put it on your wishlist, think you will like it

    Carolyn – Fergus Garrett is also fantastic to listen to

    GardenWalkGardenTalk – I’m glad you liked the review and yes it was pretty special for a book to evoke an emtional response

    Allan – thank you so much for the compliment, much appreciated

  5. Hi Helen, great to have it confirmed that this is a good book about “Christo”. I’ve never been to Great Dixter but I’ve been inspired by his – and now Fergus’ – approach to gardening, the experimentation, the refusal to be bound by what colours officially go together, or even what plants go well together! And anyone who could collect so many amazing people had to be pretty special himself. Wonder if our library has it…

  6. The first time I visited Great Dixter the house was open as well. The thing I remember most was the lived in look and, in the middle of a very old, antique style of decor there was a large, extremely modern wood and leather chair Very individual and totally different from its surroundings – it kind of reflected his unique approach to gardening.

  7. I thoroughly enjoyed your review Helen and it is high up on my wish list – I have also had a sneaky peek at the first few pages via a certain online company. After reading most of Christopher Lloyd’s books, I am hoping to finally visit Great Dixter later this year – oh so excited at the very thought.

  8. Thank you for helping me decide to buy this book. We visit Great Dixter every year on our trips to England, and often encounterd Christo in his garden. Once we took my father-in-law (also a wonderful gardener) there. He had read Christo’s books but didn’t recognize him when they met in the garden. They spent half an hour chatting about plants before he realized that he was talking to the great man himself! Christo was charmed to meet a fellow plant lover. He once told me that nasturtiums required no special attention — “just toss the seeds on the ground; they do the work” was his advice. His were gorgeous. Mine, not so much. For us, who knew the garden while he was there, his spirit is still very much present, and we are so grateful that things have not changed much. The house is an absolute gem of 15th century architecture and the furnishings are comfortable and interesting — clearly a family home. We stay at Rye and take the bus over to Great Dixter. Anyone going to that part of England should certainly make the pilgrimage to Great Dixter, where the beauty and loving care of the garden make the trip a real joy. The gift shop has all of his books and those of other garden writers along with useful garden-related gifts and useful garden tools. For those who can’t go, it sounds as if this book does a wonderful job of bringing the place to life.

  9. Hi Helen Not sure if it’s too late to comment on your Review, but I’ve only just found your blog, and as a fellow clay gardener am looking forward to reading more.

    If any one is interesed in Christopher Lloyd, I just wanted to say that I highly recommend the book Dear Friend & Gardener, which is a years collection of letters between Beth Chatto and Christopher Lloyd. You really get a feeling of their personalities. As well as comments about their gardens, they discuss cooking /recipes on what they’ve grown. It’s a really different and interesting book.

    I am so pleased that I first visited Great Dixter when Christopher was alive, and had the absolutely fascinating tour round the house also. He was there in the garden towards late afternoon, though I didn’t like to disturb him.

    I have also been visitiing Beth Chattos gardens at Elmstead Market since the 1970’s, a great place to visit. Finally I have just discovered The Old Rectory Gardens at East Ruston Norfolk, which I loved, and reminds me somewhat of Great Dixter.

    Thanks again for a great blog.

Please feel free to leave comments as its always lovely to get feedback. I try to respond to comments as much as possible but sometimes life and work get in the way but I will do my best to respond especially if your comment is a question.

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