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LGBTQ+ History Month | The Lives and Gardens of Humphrey Waterfield and Nancy Tennant

To coincide with LGBTQ+ History Month, writer Sarah Barclay looks at artist and gardener Humphrey Waterfield and his platonic partner in life and gardens Nancy Tennant, a story which was shared in our first Queer Garden History talk in October 2023. 

We are currently fundraising to purchase Humphrey Waterfield’s The Temple of Love (c.1956), to expand our collection to include more stories about the relationship between gardening and queer identity: help us acquire The Temple of Love

Humphrey Waterfield (1908-1971), The Temple of Love, Hill Pasture, Broxted, Essex c.1956

The other day, I stumbled on the title of an Oxford creative writing course, “Queering Modernism”. The blurb read as follows:

“Is literary Modernism, by virtue of its subversion, its rebelliousness, inherently ‘queer’, or is Modernism instead restrained by political, ethical or religious conservatism?”

So for me, at least, it provides a great starting point and a way in to consider Humphrey Waterfield.

It is certainly the case that Humphrey Waterfield was rebellious and free from political and religious constraints. Was he subversive? As far as love, romance and sexuality went, I believe he most certainly was. But not perhaps in the way I initially thought. How did this translate into a passion and extraordinary talent for gardening?

GAW/TN/9, photograph of Humphrey Waterfield with his painting A Scene in Regent’s Park, ca 1934, Giles Waterfield Archive, Paul Mellon Centre

Understanding Humphrey Waterfield and why he poured his energy into the creation of famously beautiful gardens is a bit of a smoke and mirrors adventure. On the surface, he appears to be a conventional Edwardian child of the Empire: privileged, with a colonial diplomatic father and grandfather, boarding school educated at Eton followed by Christ Church Oxford, destined to be another Waterfield male pillar of the Empire and Establishment.

In another life, a less queer Humphrey might have left Oxford with his glitteringly First Class degree, become a member of All Souls, as he was invited to do, and then when war came a few years later, perhaps won some medals. He might have met a beautiful, young woman from the same background, known instantly that he simply had to marry her and for better or for worse, would consummate their marriage ideally on their wedding night, producing many children and living happily ever after.

Instead, he decided to become an artist, became a pacifist, didn’t fight in the Second World War, fell in love with Nancy, an older woman and embarked on a life-long platonic relationship with her. He didn’t marry her, didn’t have children, and didn’t have any other obvious loves of his life at all. With Nancy’s help, he created famously beautiful gardens in England and France, one of which survives to this day as a protected French monument. Humphrey did things differently, not because he was driven to, but because that was what he felt he wanted.

It’s tempting, regarding Humphrey today to think he hid his sexuality and put his energies into the creation of a garden with a close friend to make up for what he couldn’t openly enjoy. He was born in 1907, so for most of his life, homosexual acts were illegal. An initial view could be that somehow the outstandingly lovely gardens at Hill Pasture and later Le Clos in France were the result of supressed passions and unfulfilled yearning. But I don’t think it was that simple. He didn’t particularly care what people thought of him. As Nancy said, “conventions meant nothing to him”.  He loved men and women with equal passion, devoting pages in his journals analysing and eulogising about their physical beauty, attractiveness, and intellectual appeal. But he often misread situations and lacked empathy even with his closest friends. He never wanted to live with anyone continuously.

When researching Humphrey’s life story and trying to understand it, I had to set aside the traditional prism of conventional love, romance and sexuality. And by that I mean that romantic love is regarded as authentic when concluded with ultimate expression of human love: physical sex. It’s quite a hard model to shake off. Christian marriage vows, Love Island, an Alan Hollinghurst novel, the direction of travel for valid romance can only be heading to one destination: physical consummation. Without the physical happy ending, it can’t be real or convincing. Can it? And if that isn’t present, is the person not deeply unhappy and unfulfilled?

I remember a retro postcard a friend of mine had stuck on her a bedroom wall. A man and woman of a Brief Encounter flavour were locked in a passionate kiss. The caption read… “Alone at Last” they were together alone, and getting physical.

On one level for readers of Eden’s Keepers, which is first and foremost a true love story, this is a bit of a disappointment, and I have lost count of the number of people who have asked me if Nancy and Humphrey were in fact conventional lovers…so much neater and easier to digest as a true love story. But not, if you are open to many different versions of human love and being. And that is why Humphrey is part of this conversation this evening.

Young Humphrey Waterfield, image courtesy Sarah Barclay

Humphrey always felt outside convention and the feeling began early. By the age of six he had views on life and what was blissful. When he reflected back on his childhood, in one of his essays, he recognised that he was different, an outsider. Like Wordsworth he placed profound importance on the child within the man…writing about a six year old boy called `John’ in a thinly disguised autobiographical essay…

“John woke up one morning looked back at his life, and decided the best of his years were over. He was always doing the wrong things: holding out his hand to strangers as he had been taught, and blushing hot when it was ignored. Life was full of these gaffes, which ate into the heart like acid and could never be expunged…”

Nature and its beauty was the consolation for things he didn’t understand or like. And when he was alone in nature, whether at his aunt’s English garden paradise or at his family home in the South of France, he found contentment.

Go away, I want to talk to the flowers!” he wrote of his childhood self.

But he wasn’t unhappy, he just derived extreme pleasure from the natural world.

Arriving in England after the end of the First World War he described himself as different to the other boys at the school.

I arrived a queer, foreign-spoken exhibit at my prep school and expected to make what terms I could with the home bred product.”

But rather than being withdrawn or homesick, he was an enthusiast. He progressed on to Eton and according to a school friend was boundlessly intellectually curious, upbeat and kind. He wrote,

“Humphrey was well-liked by everybody and friendly to all, going out of his way to be kind to non-starters and freaks of all types…he played football with some zest and inaccuracy…but when it came to schoolwork he was better than most of us and started learning subjects for fun long before we others learnt them for anything more than necessity…in my mind’s eye I can see him now seated at his desk, assiduously reading Dante from cover to cover. This he achieved with the aid of an Italian dictionary together with the learned notes of some dead scholar with whose name we were unacquainted. He often gave the impression of reading about four books at a time…”

Oxford was a similar story. He embraced academia with enthusiasm and application, but it was not because he craved high marks or validation. He happily felt himself an outsider, with his own philosophy and view of the world, where art and nature were the two highest planes of life. He spent large tracts of time not toiling away in libraries but strolling alone through the countryside, feeling he was a young man of profound views and thoughts.

In spite of being awarded a scholarship half-way through Oxford, getting the highest First in his year in his subject and being invited to take the exam for All Souls, after graduating, he essentially pressed eject. Even the day he got his First he described himself like a Siegfried Sassoon’s bird in Everyone Sang, the joyful poem of liberation after the end of the First World War…

‘the sky was the brightest blue, and the foreground of sun and golden stretches of corn, and in among the corn innumerable bright black speckles as the rooks gorged themselves on it. And I was extremely happy, for had I not proved it was possible to care chiefly for corn and the rooks among it, and yet to equal the scholars at their own game? Art is Joy and Joy is Art together had broken through the bonds of solemn learning where they did not properly belong, so that I felt like Sassoon, a captive, escaping bird, ‘winging wildly across the white orchards and dark green’ And the world seemed one endless vista of intense blue sky and of golden gleaming corn so that there is something to be said – so vain are we for achieving even so paltry thing as a First Class in the History Schools..’

His interest in pacifism began at Oxford. Although he was not alone in his conviction that war and armed combat was something he couldn’t support, he was overtly, publically pacifist, campaigning wearing a placard for the Peace Ballot. Being a pacifist meant stepping away from the conventions of his traditional family. And it also meant aligning with the politically revolutionary and sexually unconventional. And he was fine about that.

Following the King and Country Debate at the Oxford Union in February 1933, where the students had backed the motion, ‘This House will under no circumstances fight for its King and country’ the Daily Telegraph described it as “disloyalty at Oxford, gesture towards the Reds’. The Daily Express didn’t simply suggest it was Communist to vote for the motion, it declared pacifism appealed to a transexual, weak and idiotic sort of human being,“There is no question but that the woozy-minded Communists, the practical jokers and sexual indeterminates of Oxford have scored a great success in the publicity that has followed this victory…”

By the time the Second World War arrived, Humphrey had met the woman he would describe as “his eyes and his heart”, his life-long friend and platonic love of his life, Nancy Tennant. It was an unconventional match. Nancy was almost a generation older than him. She was 36 to his 24 when they first met. Again, not your average guy.

Nancy had given up on love. Any hope that she might find a husband had evaporated after the First World War, she described her generation as “never young”. She threw herself into working for the increasingly influential Women’s Institute, not only through her choral work but also campaigning for peace and international mutual understanding and co-operation between women.

It was a strange match and disapproved of by many including some family members and Essex locals. From 1936, together they embarked on the creation of what would become the famously beautiful living work of art in a rural Essex village. The garden at Hill Pasture was a blend of English and Riviera style with nods to Sissinghurst, Hidcote and Munstead Wood. The garden began as a field – in fact it was a rural village rubbish dump with nothing but stinging nettles and grass in it. Humphrey commissioned a shocking Modernist bungalow to live in on the four-acre plot. It was revolutionary. Modernist architect, Erno Goldfinger designed a house the local council declared so ugly, trees had to be planted to conceal the view of the white cube-like structure from the road. It was described by Goldfinger ‘as his most direct architectural expression of Surrealism.” Again, not your average person. But yet again, through choice.

So just to recap here, Humphrey is academic but doesn’t care about academic institutions. He is an artist and nature lover. He has found a romantic partner with whom he has no physical relationship, he lives in a house which rejects traditional architectural ideas of beauty and is even considered extremely ugly by some and he is thrilled with it. He is a pacifist and has no interest or belief in fighting for his country.

Humphrey Waterfield (left), 1942. Image courtesy Sarah Barclay

And then the Second World war comes. After attending a tribunal to examine his pacifist convictions he is exempted from conscription, joins the Quaker Friends Ambulance Unit and works through the war as an ambulance driver and hospital support staff member. It takes him from freezing Scandinavia following the Russian invasion of Finland to the Middle East where he remains for three years. He finds it profoundly depressing.

Hill Pasture, for all its opportunity for creative vision, natural beauty and romantic, artistic expression becomes a place in his head but it sustains him. It even keeps him alive. He writes mid-war in his journal that without Nancy and Hill Pasture, suicide would have been reasonable.

Nancy writes to him constantly through the war years, describing the details of the garden, its progress and he, in turn, makes suggestions. His diaries reveal infatuations with other men, but they amount to nothing. Nancy and his garden are his constants. Once The Middle East and North Africa are secured by the Allies, he is sent to France, but soon captured by retreating Germans and spends the final six months of the war in a Strasbourg prison.

He wrote of himself that he was “a muddle head and he could only manage friendships one or two at a time”. When he focused on a single person, it was intense. Like the trees and plants that he loved, he was forensic in his interest which included admiring the visual and aesthetic.

He loved his fellow woman and man but was essentially alone. Nancy described him as “Blake’s winged Joy”. I would suggest he was a free spirit who loved nature, art and its fusion with an intense and unusually profound focus.

He said of himself, “I am bad at human beings” but having spoken to many who knew him, I don’t believe that was true. He was charming, erudite, loving and unusual. He also loved plants and gardens best of all. So is there a link between sexuality and gardening? The answer has to be yes. But in Humphrey’s case, it was the absence of consummation and the time he had to himself that invites a closer look and appreciation of this talented, clever and very loving man.

Front cover of Eden's Keepers

Sarah Barclay is the author of Eden’s Keepers: The Lives and Gardens of Humphrey Waterfield and Nancy Tennant, available now in our online bookshop

This LGBTQ+ History Month we are fundraising to purchase Humphrey Waterfield’s The Temple of Love (c.1956), to expand our collection to include more stories about the relationship between gardening and queer identity: donate to help us acquire The Temple of Love