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Brenda Colvin archive

By Ruth Slavid
Brenda Colvin effectively had two careers, one before and one after World War Two. The donation of her archive to the Landscape Institute Archive at MERL is a great resource for enthusiasts and scholars.

A major addition has been made to the Landscape Institute archive at MERL (the Museum of English Rural Life) in Reading, with the generous donation of the Brenda Colvin archive. 
 
Hal Moggridge, who was Brenda Colvin’s partner in Colvin & Moggridge, and who was responsible for the donation, believes that the importance of the archive extends beyond Brenda Colvin’s significance as a designer. ‘What seemed valuable was that the archive is quite big,’ he said. ‘If somebody wants to know how most people worked, there is enough material to get an idea of how work was carried out. It has already become historically interesting with all the paper and tracing paper.’ 
 
The size of the archive did however mean that it needed a home that could accommodate it. When the archive was installed at MERL in 2013, this seemed ideal. ‘Before the move,’ Hal said, ‘the Landscape Institute hadn’t really got the capacity to absorb a large amount of material. This donation would have swamped it.’ 
 
It is the combination of volume and quality that makes the Brenda Colvin archive so valuable. She had, effectively, two careers and her partnership with the much younger Hal Moggridge in the second one means that, unusually, there is somebody still alive who recalls working with a woman who was born in 1897.
 
The first part of Colvin’s career was before World War Two. Born in India, where her father was a senior administrator, she trained in garden design at Swanley College (now Hadlow College) and set up her own practice in 1922. She shared an office with that other towering female figure of 20th century landscape design, Sylvia Crowe, but they never actually worked together. Both women became presidents of the Landscape Institute, an institution that Colvin had co-founded in 1929.
 
Colvin’s work in the pre-war years was almost entirely on private gardens, both in the UK and overseas. One of her most significant projects was Archduke Charles Albert Habsburg’s garden at Zywiec in Poland, designed in the late 1930s. It was the fact that this garden was overrun by German troops during the war, and then became a German barracks, that in part influenced her decision after the war to move into public sector work, which she felt had a greater chance of surviving.
 
In the mid-1960s, after a period of illness, Colvin decided to retire. She bought a house at Filkins in Lechlade, Gloucestershire and created a garden for it. But this was not enough for her and, despite by then being around 70, she decided to go back into practice, operating from home. In 1969, the Jellicoes introduced her to the much younger Hal Moggridge (he was only 33), and she asked him to go into practice with her. ‘She was really active for about five years,’ he said. Before she died in 1981, she asked Chris Carter to join the practice and the foundations were set for the future. She left the house and garden to the practice.
 
Although a lot of the Colvin material was lost during the war, there was still a substantial archive, including negatives of photographs that were taken pre-War. The practice eventually moved out of the house, which was let independently, and into a converted outbuilding. The archive was stored in a building that was little more than a shed.
 
This shed was quite damp, but this proved to be the salvation of the pre-War photo-graphic negatives. Too often these are stored in dry central heating, and they dry out resulting in the emulsion peeling off. The Brenda Colvin negatives, with their damper storage, were in near pristine condition, making it possible to print from them.
 
And the archive was not disordered. ‘It was quite well catalogued,’ Hal Moggridge said. ‘If anybody enquired about a job, we could find the drawings. But it just sat there. The written material just sat in heaps in metal files.’ Having partially retired, becoming a consultant to the practice, Hal decided to put the material in order and to donate it to MERL. ‘I thought it was rather important,’ he said. ‘Otherwise it would have been thrown away. I did a lot of weeding out. I spent about two or three months on it, and catalogued it in an amateur way.’
 
Guy Baxter, university archivist at Reading, disagrees about the amateur approach. He said, ‘Rarely has an archive come to us in such a well-organised state. I would like to pay tribute to Hal Moggridge for his dedication in ensuring that so much care went into preserving Brenda Colvin’s legacy. As a result, future generations of scholars and practitioners will benefit from having a beautifully organised record of Colvin’s work’.
 
Doing this work has led Hal Moggridge to think back about Brenda Colvin’s work, its significance and even her shortcomings. ‘She was always slightly ahead of Sylvia Crowe in terms of thought,’ he said, ‘but she hadn’t got her gift for people. She hadn’t got her excellent way with clients. But Brenda was rather grand and so she could get work with private clients.’ In her 
public sector work she developed a long-standing relationship with the CEGB (Central Electricity Generating Board) and had other significant clients such as acting as landscape architect for Aldershot. Despite her social awkwardness, this was a highly significant career.
 
Guy Baxter at MERL is evidently delighted to have her archive, and sees a synergy in it being there. ‘Brenda Colvin would, I hope, be happy to know that her archive is alongside that of the Landscape Institute, which she led, and that of Sylvia Crowe, with whom she shared an office,’ he said. ‘There are other links to archives held here at Reading, which we have just started to uncover. For instance, among the papers of the Open Spaces Society will be plenty on the campaign to preserve Wimbledon Common in the nineteenth century. Colvin worked on a landscaping scheme for parts of the common alongside Madeline Agar during the 1920s. Colvin also undertook design work at Sutton Courtenay Manor for David Astor: the archives of his parents, Waldorf and Nancy Astor, of Cliveden, are also at Reading.’
 
The Friends of the Landscape Library and Archive at Reading (FOLAR) have already held a study day on Brenda Colvin at which Hal Moggridge spoke and where elements from the archive were on display. While MERL has to be selective in what it can accept, this large and significant archive is enriching the worlds of landscape and of scholarship.

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