The Thatcher Years (1979-1990)

Arrival ceremony at the White House for Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher (26 February 1981; Reagan Presidential Library)

Arrival ceremony at the White House for Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher (26 February 1981; Reagan Presidential Library)

All of the three British ambassadors posted to the United States during the Thatcher years had a personal, practical interest in the gardens.

Sir Nicholas Henderson (1979-82), was an avid gardener, who during his previous appointment to Paris displayed gardening exhibitions in the British Ambassador’s residence (such as one promoting garden tools). He came to Washington and found the grounds inadequate, as reported in a profile in the Washington Star (13 February 1980). His priority was the installation of a proper English lawn and so “dropped the old gardener with the wondrous vocabulary, and hauled aboard a Hotshot Horticulturalist [Kerry Blockley] to tackle the straggling green.”

Koi Pond of the Japanese Garden

Koi Pond of the Japanese Garden (photo by Alana Sanders)

The Hendersons also oversaw the renovations of the Residence, whose gala re-opening was subdued as it coincided with the start of the Falklands War. Despite previously complaining that the rooms were “a patchwork” of different tastes, several competing British firms and interior decorators—amongst them, Laura Ashley, Fowler, Liberty of London—were given the opportunity to tackle each room and promote their work. Mirroring the interior, the grounds had acquired a patchwork of its own, including a Japanese garden with its koi pond (1974), various memorial tree plantings and a “Secret Garden” created around a stone carved with the Royal cypher, presented by The English-Speaking Union in 1991, salvaged from the old British Embassy on Connecticut Avenue.

Victoria Regina cypher from the original British Embassy (photo by J. Blakely)

Victoria Regina cypher from the original British Embassy (photo by J. Blakely)

Sir Oliver Wright (1982-86) gardened himself and explained to a reporter why he did not play tennis. “I got my [tennis] elbow from laying a brick path in the garden.” He went on further: “I like to think I can lay out a garden as well as the next fellow, but the thing I really like is digging … I love the digging. The way the worms come up” (Washington Post, 31 October 1982).

Ambassador Sir Antony Acland (1986-91) and Lady Acland redesigned Sir John Thouron’s herbaceous border, with less subtle colors and adding a key-pattern hedge of holly. They also had planted a single variety in each terrace bed of the rose parterre. The Herb Garden also carved out from the area near the service wing of the Residence, as well as a cutting garden by the greenhouses by the Chancery. In an article of this time on the gardens in Southern Accents, “… each new ambassador, most of whom, on arriving at this imposing new post, want to put their mark on what Lutyens began.”

The 1980s was a period when most of the embassies in Washington felt the need to trim back from the overwhelming demands to host charity events, a tradition begun during World War II on the grounds of the British Embassy. The Wrights sponsored about twenty benefits a year. While still recognizing the importance of entertaining for certain causes and public relations, stricter criteria were applied to organizations seeking sponsorship. Cultural, humanitarian and social activities related to the country that would heighten an embassy’s profile rather than a new ambassador’s patronage for a charity, tended to predominate. Another trend in Washington, again initiated by Lutyens’s British Embassy, was to build new embassies and chanceries as showcases in park-like settings, conveying great symbolic significance in the world capital. One example is the French Embassy (built 1982-84) on Reservoir Road, in the farther northwest quadrant of the city. In 1982 the U.S. Congress passed the Foreign Missions Act, which made it easier for embassies in the District of Columbia to expand their buildings—even if the era of frequent, elaborate garden parties was over.

Ambassador's Residence lawn with the American Maple planted by the Prince & Princess of Wales November 1985 (photo by J. Blakely)

Ambassador’s Residence lawn with the American Maple planted by the Prince & Princess of Wales November 1985 (photo by J. Blakely)

Bibliography
Conroy, Sarah Booth. “When the embassy party is a problem,” The Washington Post, 2 November 1986, p. G1.
Deitz, Paula. “Borrowed from Britain: from maze to hedgerow, every feature of the English garden has been adapted by Americans,” The New York Times, 14 April 1985.
Downie, Leonard, Jr. “Thatcher names career envoy to U.S.,” The Washington Post, 22 May 1979, p. A5.
Hall, Carla. “Putting up the Brits: upstairs & down, the Embassy prepares for today’s Royal visit,” The Washington Post, 9 November 1985, p. G1.
Mitchell, Henry. “The posting of Sir Oliver Wright,” The Washington Post, 31 October 1982, p. G1.
Young, Samuel. “Diplomatic amenity: the British Embassy garden in Washington, D.C.,” Southern Accents, April 1990, p. 88-95.Alana-13
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