Mavis Batey MBE — ‘The Genius of the Scene’ at 90

Posted on June 1st, 2011 by Charles Boot
Lady Egremont & Mavis Batey & Dominic Cole

Lady Egremont with Mavis Batey and our chairman Dominic Cole at Petworth. Christopher Batey and Louise Cooper look on. Photo by Steffie Shields

We couldn’t let the occasion of Mavis’s 90th birthday pass without a few words. A large and joyous group  gathered at Petworth on Thursday 5 May, to celebrate the long involvement Mavis has had with the Society.

She took over as Honorary Secretary from Kay Sanecki in 1971. She held that post until 1985 when she was elected President, and excelled in that role until 2000, when she finally stepped down. We remain delighted that she had been awarded the Veitch Memorial Medal by the Royal Horticultural Society in 1985 for her ‘contribution to the preservation of gardens which would otherwise have been lost’ and, perhaps even more so, for the award of an MBE in 1987 for ‘services to the preservation and conservation of historic gardens’.

In 1996 we published a festschrift in celebration of Mavis in our journal Garden History 24:1, with an affectionate tribute to her by Ted Fawcett, himself having just stepped down as Chairman. An extensive interview by Sarah Jackson appears on Parks and Gardens UK, under contemporary-profiles and fills out the story still more. Mavis’s description of the campaign to save Painshill was a highlight of the recent conference there, and is published in the recent The New Arcadian Journal 67/68.We are delighted to include these two memoirs from her co-authors of Indignation! the publication which celebrated the campaign for conservation.

Kim Wilkie writes:

I first met Mavis peering over my drawings in an exhibition of Thames Connections at the Royal Fine Art Commission in 1991. “So when are you going to start?” she said and, before I knew it, she had mobilized southwest London to support the abstract ideas and they had become a project. This was the beginning of the Thames Landscape Strategy and the start of my friendship with Mavis and Keith. Over the coming years Mavis would travel up almost every week to our little studio at the top of a house on the top of Richmond Hill. She would bring a bottle of sherry to keep up our spirits and donated all her time and expertise on behalf of the Garden History Society to leverage grants and wider support. Sometimes she would get the last train back to Bognor Regis and Keith was always there to meet her or to deliver her to some far-flung project in Oxfordshire or central England. They made a wonderful, witty and enormously generous team.

It is now inconceivable to think of the Thames Landscape Strategy without Mavis’ insight, scholarship and unstinting work. No request was ever too great and I have box files of her letters and investigations in her careful hand that must have been written between 5 and 7am before her own day got going. I have worked with Mavis on everything from Strawberry Hill in Twickenham to Broad Street in Oxford. Always she has brought a clarity and depth of understanding that has given life to each place. More than anything else, Mavis has a unique ability to see landscape connections across history and cultures. The minute precision of her scholarship combined with the cultural breadth of her vision is very rare and very exciting.

David Lambert writes:

Like so many people, thousands when you think about it, I wouldn’t be here, where I am this morning, if it weren’t for Mavis. I first met her in the village hall in Iffley thirty years ago where, as an aimless English graduate, I had seen a poster for a talk on historic parks in Oxfordshire and wandered in to listen. Probably one of hundreds of talks in drafty village halls which Mavis gave across the county over many years, for the CPRE, for the WEA and of course for the GHS.

The Mock Turtle was taught ‘Mystery, Ancient and Modern’ and Mavis too has explored countless mysteries, reading and looking not only with a Carrollian eye for the absurd, which she finds everywhere, but also with a code-breaker’s tenacity in solving those puzzles. And she has led the rest of us fearlessly — as she says, “all you needed at Bletchley was a pencil” — through Regency shrubberies or the planning system, from the imperial gardens of Jehol to the deserted villages of Oxfordshire. It’s all of a piece for her and that’s a wonderful thing.

Her delightability has always been the counterweight to her indignation. Whether making connections that illuminated a garden’s history (her memory is far more capacious even than the magic wardrobe where she files the carrier bags of notes) or writing the next letter of protest, the giggle at something that has tickled her is never far away. And still nothing seems to escape her. Only this autumn, she was on the phone disbelieving that people seem to have no knowledge of some of the heroic battles waged by the GHS and CPRE and others in the past to save historic landscapes and parks.

So we’ll be raising the flowing glass again on the 5 May; many happy returns, Mavis, lots of love and thank you from us all.

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