1924-2006 | United Kingdom
Guest Blogger, Martha Keen, has written the piece below about the dynamic Historic Woman in Hort, Valerie Finnis.
"Plantswoman, educator and photographer Valerie Finnis is a horticulturist for the ages. While several cultivars that she introduced still carry her name, her sociability and charisma, keen eye for design and candor in capturing her subjects, and encyclopedic alpine plant prowess warrant retelling perhaps most of all.
| Left: Rock garden plants in 3-inch clay pots. Photo by V. Finnis |
| Right: Sir David Scott and Valerie Finnis on their wedding day in 1970. Photo by V. Finnis. |
Born in Sussex, UK in 1924 to Commander Steriker, a retired naval officer, and Constance Finnis, a talented home gardener, Valerie Finnis found reprieve from her homesickness in boarding school by gardening a small plot at the suggestion of the campus’ head gardener. She had been a precocious and sensitive gardener from the time she was a small child, preferring athletics and theater to academics. The outbreak of WWII precipitated a move from Hayes Court School in Kent to the Downe House School in Newbury where she was fortunate to meet head gardener Mary Young, who had recently graduated from the Waterperry Horticultural School for Women in Oxfordshire. In 1942 at age 18, Valerie would enter Waterperry under the tutelage of its founder Miss Beatrix Havergal, and would stay on as staff until 1970 directing the Alpine Department, where she propagated some 50,000 plants per year, many of those difficult saxifrages and drabas, which were sold in the nursery she instituted.
As a means of supplementing her income, especially during the time that she was caring for her ailing father, Valerie took up photography at the urging of her friend Wilhelm Schacht who had gifted her an old Rolleiflex camera. In 50,000 transparencies across four decades, she would rise to become one of the first woman photographers of plants, and gain lasting renown as one of the most original plant photographers of her time. Her images graced greeting cards, record sleeves, and calendars as well as stately botanical manuscript standards. While she was skilled in conveying essential traits of alpine plants on film, Valerie had a penchant for capturing garden people as well—both post-war gardening celebrities as well as aficionados wearing silly hats and smart suits, and especially those accompanied by dogs, preferably pugs.
Valerie’s good cheer and wit won her the affection of the botanical community across the globe, and she likewise gained renown as a sought-after plant judge, exhibitor and lecturer. She remained at Waterperry for 28 years until a chance encounter with a garden visitor who happened to recognize Gillenia trifoliata where no other visitor had before, signaled love at first sight. She married Sir David Scott, a widowed and retired diplomat, in 1970 and moved with her collection of alpine plants to his home at Dower House in Northamptonshire. Valerie was awarded the Victoria Medal of Honour in 1975. For the next 16 years, she and Sir David would cultivate a garden and a shared life there until David died a few months short of his centenary in 1986.
Valerie Finnis lived on at Dower House, founding the Merlin Trust in 1990 for adventuring young horticulturists. Plants she bred, selected and named include Artemisia ludoviciana 'Valerie Finnis,’ Artemisia stelleriana ‘Boughton Silver,’ Clematis 'Bill MacKenzie’ (C. orientalis x C. tangutica), Hebe cupressoides ‘Boughton Dome,’ Helleborus x sternii ‘Boughton Beauty,’ Muscari armeniacum 'Valerie Finnis,’ and Dianthus ‘Constance Finnis’ and Papaver nudicaule ‘Constance Finnis,’ which were named for her mother. She died at age 81 in 2006."
|Left: Valerie Finnis (later Lady Montagu Douglas Scott) Photo by Jan Baldwin |
|Right: Alpine Garden Society members Mrs. and Mr. Parker observing snowdrops
Photo by V. Finnis |
Text Compiled by Martha Keen, and generously shared with Women in Horticulture. Martha presented many more wonderful stories about historic women through her talk Heroines in Horticulture that was presented to WinH at Chanticleer earlier this year. Martha and WinH hope that this post inspires others to research and share the stories of other "heroines in horticulture" by being guest bloggers on this site.
Buchan, Ursula, et al. Garden People: The Photographs of Valerie Finnis. Thames & Hudson, 2007.
Horwood, Catherine. Women and Their Gardens: A History from the Elizabethan Era to Today. Ball Pub., 2012.