in memoriam: Alix Wilkinson

Posted on September 6th, 2011 by Charles Boot

Alix Wilkinson was an enthusiastic garden historian, intrepid traveller and cheerful, smiling friend and companion. To those who have travelled on garden history tours in Europe and the Near East she was a familiar figure. One of my first memories of Alix dates from a visit we made together to the Egyptian collection in the British Museum. I wondered about the meaning of the hieroglyphics and she immediately began reading them as fluently as if she was reading the daily newspaper. I had no idea then that she had worked in that department, nor of her command of a variety of languages, or that she had written Ancient Egyptian Jewellery (Methuen, 1972).

Alix Wilkinson. Photo by Hazel Conway

Alix Wilkinson. Photo by Hazel Conway

Alix and John, her husband lived for several years in Jerusalem and later in Washington, D.C. and both postings provided opportunities which contributed to her development as a garden historian. While based in Jerusalem, Alix taught English to Palestinian students attending Birzeit University, outside Ramallah. She also learnt modern Arabic and became involved in the archaeology and gardens of the Near East, travelling later to Iran and to Syria.

In Washington D.C. Alix studied at Georgetown University where she was awarded her PhD in Linguistics. However as her commitment to garden history increased, she accepted an offer to become a Gardens Fellow at the Centre for Studies in Landscape Architecture, Dumbarton Oaks. This meant that she was paid to study historic gardens and during this period she researched much of the material for The Garden in Ancient Egypt (Rubicon Press, London, 1998). This involved studying archaeological remains; documents on stone and papyrus which described the layout, size, plants and use of particular gardens; and paintings and models of gardens.

Once back in London Alix became involved in a variety of garden-related activities. She became a tour guide at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, joined the Birkbeck College Garden History Course, set up the Kensington Gardeners’ Club and organised a programme of visits and lectures, and was a founder member of ASTENE, 1997 (The Association for the Study of Travellers in Egypt and the Near East).

She also embarked on new research in Egypt, focusing this time on nineteenth century Cairo and the gardens of the Khedive, Ismail Pasha. Ismail Pasha was determined to bring Egypt into the ‘modern’ European world and as part of this plan he brought in Barillet Deschamps, who had worked with Alphand on the parks of Paris. The plans and planting lists of two of Barillet Deschamps’ gardens, Gezira and Ezbekiah, survive, as do documents of his assistant. Tracking down the individual plants, in a period when plant nomenclature was by no means standardized, was a challenging task and Alix was often to be seen at Kew studying and photographing particular plants; she was a very good photographer. Her research meant frequent visits to Cairo and another circle of friends and colleagues.

Other important areas of her research remain unpublished. These included Lyveden New Bield and sacri monte. The original sacred mountain was the hill of Calvary outside Jerusalem and from the late fifteenth century this inspired the creation of many sacri monte, initially in Italy and later across Europe. They were approached via a pilgrimage route, which was in effect the Via Dolorosa. Much smaller versions could be found on religious sites such as monasteries. Even if these had been abandoned the sacro monte, which could created from a natural feature, or man-made, often survived. It was these smaller sites that Alix was amassing information on, travelling widely in order to do so. These sites were often off the beaten track, as were many of the gardens that Alix visited. This meant contending with local public transport which could be very unreliable. Her tales of some of her struggles to return to base could be most entertaining.

She is much missed.

Hazel Conway

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