Garden People by Valerie Finnis

I always turn to gardens when I want to know a city better. Like food markets, botanical gardens and city gardens are a mirror of local culture and a country’s history . It is also a passion that people of all wakes share, a language that they can speak. No matter if they do not understand what they are saying, they are talking garden language.

My mother was a fantastic gardener and had a beautiful and very original garden that people always came out of the way to visit when in Andalucia. Her best friend was legendary British gardener and landscape designer Russell Page who came to stay with us often while he researched mediterranean flora for his clients and I always remember them absorbed in their ‎own world , clambering under barbed wire fences in the middle of cattle fields, stopping on the sides of the roads to dig out a wild iris, or down a ravine to pick some samples of a rare bee-eating orchid. My mother and Russell could talk for hours about the right dosage of pigeon dung fertilizer or how to handle a pale pink tree dahlia which had gotten too tall.

The term “Garden people” and the world it depicts is very close to me and my sisters. There is something very comforting and rewarding about gardening and being outside with your plants , oblivious to computers and internet chatter . I can get in a meditative state !  Just being able to put your hands in the damp soil is a way of reconnecting with the earth and where us humans come from , a feeling that we can lose when we live in a loud city and spend many hours a day staring at a cold screen , drowned in technology , ungrounded. So when it is cold and dreary outside, regardless of where I am, I like to get my copy of Garden People about the unique English gardener and photographer Valerie Finnis ( 1924 -2006 ) and I go through it lovingly , admiring the beautiful portraits of the somewhat eccentric “garden people” and the plants, shrubs and gardens of England from 1950’s onwards

From The Guardian I have selected a few edits from her obituary in 2006 :

Valerie Finnis, who has died aged 81, was one of the great ladies of gardening, renowned as a plantswoman and flower photographer, and as a unique character in her world. She knew everyone in it and revelled in its gossip, dramas, and talk littered with titles – she had one herself, by marriage but always used her maiden name.

Plants were her first passion. An early memory was of a garden with drifts of gentians she saw when she was three. In 1975 the Royal Horticultural Society awarded her its greatest distinction, the Victoria Medal of Honour, for her many-faceted contribution to horticulture. “For me it used to be plants before people,” she told me when we met. But after her marriage to Sir David Scott when she was 46, she said, she came to see that “it’s really only people that matter”. Her life was crammed with contacts, which she used tirelessly to make a difference to many other lives.

To boost her income to support her invalid father, Finnis developed more accomplishments: as a lecturer and broadcaster, a member of several Royal Horticultural Society committees, and one of the first women photographers of plants. With an old Rolleiflex, the gift of Wilhelm Schacht, curator of Munich’s botanic garden, she built up a library of 50,000 transparencies of plant portraits, and some of such gardeners as Margery Fish, David Shackleton and Vita Sackville-West.

When Howard Sooley went to photograph Finnis some years ago, she took as many pictures of him as he of her, and a friendship began. When Sooley saw this remarkable archive, sadly encased in cardboard boxes, he determined it should be published

Finnis never lost her excitement in response to life, a quality that propelled her towards the man she would marry. Immured in her potting shed at Waterperry one day in 1968, she heard a voice outside remark: “Goodness, she’s got Gillenia trifoliata!” Thrilled, Finnis rushed out. “You’re the first person who’s ever known that plant!” she exclaimed to the speaker. Both their lives changed in that moment.

David Scott was a retired diplomat who with his late wife, Dorothy, had spent 40 years growing trees and rare shrubs in two acres of parkland beside the dower house of Boughton House, the Northamptonshire seat of the Dukes of Buccleuch. He was a grandson of the fifth Duke and had grown up there. To this beautiful place came Finnis and her alpines. “We just gardened,” she said, when asked about their marriage. Its 16 years of great happiness ended when David died in 1986, aged 99.

It was Finnis’s love for plants that helped her recover from her grief. David’s only child, Merlin, a gifted naturalist, was killed in the second world war at 22. A friend suggested Valerie do something for young people in his memory. From this seed grew the Merlin Trust, a fund she set up in 1990 to help young men and women with grants for horticultural travel and research projects. Since then, the Trust has helped almost 500 young gardeners.

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Valerie Finnis in her garden shed. Photo by Jan Baldwin for World of Interiors April 2009

Valerie was a style icon for her generation. While gardening she loved to wear big, decorated hats and was usually dressed in a Liberty print blouse and a string of pearls, adding a touch of glamour to the potting shed. Her photographer’s eye meant she was able to be inspirationally stylish at both house and dress. She also had a knack of getting the best out of her subjects and her pictures never looked staged. Valerie also took many dramatic still-lives of bouquets , close-ups of flowers  and surreal vegetable and fruit arrangements for calendars, but unfortunately I cannot find any images online for now. I have included 2 mediocre scans at the bottom of my post.


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Above a Valerie Finnis photo of Nancy Lancaster wearing a totally unsuitable but dramatic garden hat.



John Mattock , a famous Oxfordshire rose nurseryman , standing among his field -grown roses with a freshly cut bouquet. Note the raffia dangling from his jacket ready for use. Photograph Valerie Finnis . 

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Nancy Landcaster by Valerie Finnis.

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Above is Rhoda, Lady Birley, with a beautiful ( and unpractical ) scarf and dainty indoor shoes , looking so chic with her giant shears. Valerie had a weakness for outrageous hat,both wearing them herself and photographing others in them. Photograph Valerie Finnis . 

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 Vita Sackville-West ( left ) in her garden at Sissinghurst Castle (wearing a selection of clothes not fit for the garden and very uncomfortable knee- high lace up boots ). Photograph Valerie Finnis .

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Above : Mr and Mrs Parker inspect a snowdrop. Photograph Valerie Finnis

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Valerie Finnis works in the garden with her husband, Sir David Scott. Finnis fell for Scott because he was the first person she’d ever met who recognized Gillenia Trifoliata. This picture was taken on their wedding day , one hour after they got married they were outside in the ground weeding.

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Beatrix Havergal, Pamela Schwerdt, Sibylle Kreutsberger  by Valerie Finnis (later Lady Montagu Douglas Scott)


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garden people

And here below this is a piece from the Merlin Trust website written by the author of the book Garden People, Ursula Buchan :

Alongside the Waterperry Finnis (the girls always called each other by their surnames), the dungarees and digging side, there existed a completely different Finnis, actressy, mischievous, a woman who adored gossip and outrageous hats. She joined the exclusive circle of People who kept Pugs, the last of her pug dogs a beguiling barrel-shaped creature called Sophie. She knew most of the people who mattered in the gardening world and many of them were invited to the Dower House, where they would usually be photographed and asked to write in one of her extraordinary scrap-books.

She had a knack for engineering spectacular fallings-out with people, a process she thoroughly enjoyed. She was a great chronicler of her age and a terrific letter-writer. I’ve kept every one she sent me. Her handsome, determined script circles round and round the edges of the writing paper, as new, often surreal thoughts exploded from what she had originally written on the page.

For years, she served on various prestigious plant committees of the Royal Horticultural Society and in 1975 was awarded their ultimate accolade, the Victoria Medal of Honour. Several fine plants commemorate her expertise: Viola ‘Boughton Blue’, Hebe cupressoides ‘Boughton Dome’, Muscari ‘Valerie Finnis’. She was an extremely effective ally in the fracas in 1995 that surrounded the RHS’s plans to move their world-class library out of London. That was when she acquired her nickname “Mole”, a role she adored and in which she was astonishingly effective.

She was always generous to people starting off in the plant business. Carol Klein of Glebe Cottage Plants (now a television presenter on Gardeners’ World) remembers the first time she showed at the RHS in London, a daunting occasion. “Finnis adored the plants. She noticed things that other people missed.” When at the Chelsea Flower Show, Klein was disappointed to get only a silver medal for a show garden, Finnis came to the stand with a banana inscribed “Gold Medal awarded to Glebe Cottage Plants by Valerie Finnis”.

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Bouquet still-lives by Valerie Finnis.

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Portrait of Valerie Finnis by Tessa Traeger

11 responses to “Garden People by Valerie Finnis”

  1. Sophia says:

    What a beautiful collection of photographs!

  2. Jesús Moraime says:

    Jajajaja !
    Im really thankfull for you two 🙂
    That´s the botanist risky life….

  3. Jesús Moraime says:

    Gladiolus byzantinus ! I love them, I have them in my country farm in Cáceres growing wild and some of them in my garden broughts by mi dera Sylvia Melian from the Campo de Gibraltar. Thanks my friend 🙂

    • fashionsphinxn says:

      Thank you ! that is the name……..I was the one having to dig them up on the roadside last year…..and because of this we had a burst tire and we were in the middle of nowhere on an unpaved road and it was getting dark but very quickly we were surrounded by , in chronological order , a groom from a nearby finca, a vaquero from another , a couple strolling who had seen the “accident ” ( sylvia drove into a huge rock because she was looking for your gladioli) and a car mechanic , so everyone helped , commented and soon we were on our way with an emergency tire and some gladioli bulbs for you

  4. fashionsphinx says:

    Fuschia gladioli you mean ?

    So many memories
    Their correspondence is precious

    Apart from the chocolate I also remember his amazing colorful Liberty shirts….. he gave me one with I kept for many years until it tore from old age

  5. loved it. love seeing the fucsia orchids in Lady Birley ‘s garden which grow all over the countryside in the South of Spain. I remember Mary Randolph and Russel Page going all the way to CAbo de San Vicente to findsome sort of sistus they had to have and also going all the way to the south of France to pick up some “claire de lune” mimosas they could not live without. I also remember the nice boxes of chocolate he brought fron Switzerland each time he came to visit… such a treat in those days!!

  6. Jesús Moraime says:

    I loved it !
    Such a fascinating character !,
    it’s really inspiring you article,
    thanks a lot my dear fashion sphinx 🙂

  7. JESUS GOMEZ says:

    Todo lo que haces es exquisito Eugenia, enhorabuena, tu mirada siempre es sobre algo o alguien especial. GRACIAS POR TAN BELLO REPORTAJE

  8. Looove this post! Thank you