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Walling, Edna Margaret (1895–1973)

by Peter Watts

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002

Edna Margaret Walling (1895-1973), self-portrait

Edna Margaret Walling (1895-1973), self-portrait

La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria, H96.150/278

Edna Margaret Walling (1895-1973), garden designer, was born on 4 December 1895 at York, England, second daughter of William Walling, furniture dealer's clerk, and his wife Harriet Margaret, née Goff. Edna attended school at the Convent of Notre Dame, Plymouth, Devon. She later recalled her fondness for the English countryside which she had enjoyed exploring with her father. He also steered her towards the practical arts. Arriving in New Zealand in 1912 with her family, she worked for a short time as a maid on a property in the country and began a nursing course at Christchurch. About 1914 the Wallings moved to Melbourne where William became warehouse director with Toledo-Berkel Pty Ltd.

Encouraged by her mother, Edna studied at the School of Horticulture, Burnley, gaining her government certificate in December 1917. She then began work as a jobbing gardener around Melbourne. Asked by an architect to plan a garden, she jumped at the opportunity. More commissions followed and by the early 1920s she had built a flourishing practice in garden design. She developed a sophisticated style, which attracted an equally sophisticated clientele, and rapidly became the leading exponent of the art in Victoria. Soon her reputation spread to other States. Her regular gardening columns (1926-46) in Australian Home Beautiful enhanced her reputation and extended her influence. She also contributed articles to other magazines.

Walling's design idiom matured in the mid-1920s and changed little during her career. To some extent, she emulated the styles of Spanish and Italian gardens and the work of Sir Edwin Lutyens and Gertrude Jekyll in Britain. The gardens she created typically exhibited a strong architectural character. For clients in the wealthy suburbs of Melbourne and on country estates, her designs included grand architectural features—walls, pergolas, stairs, parterres, pools and colonnades—woven into a formal geometry; but she always found a space for a 'wild' (unstructured) section. As her standing increased, she took up commissions in South Australia and New South Wales.

For clients with more modest means, Walling's approach was more relaxed, relying on curving lawns and garden beds to give the illusion of greater space. But rarely were there no stone walls or other structural features. Whether the garden was big or small, she created a succession of 'pictures'. Her handling of space, contour, level and vista was brilliant. Equally impressive was her mastery of plants and their visual and ecological relationships. Her gardens, no matter how formal, were clothed by a soft and consistent palette of plants. She favoured greens and used other colours sparingly, mostly in pastel tones or white. For many clients she produced an exquisite water-colour plan of the garden as a means of conveying her proposals. Most of her gardens were constructed by Eric Hammond. Walling often provided the plants from her own nursery and was frequently on site giving instructions and helping with the physical labour.

In the early 1920s Walling had acquired land at Mooroolbark where she built a house for herself, known as Sonning. Here she lived and worked, establishing her nursery and gathering around her a group of like-minded people for whom she designed picturesque 'English' cottages and gardens. She named the area Bickleigh Vale village. Some people, rather unkindly, called it Trouser Lane because of the dress of its predominantly female residents. The village was, and remains, an extraordinary experiment in urban development. In Walling's lifetime, and beyond, it has become a place of pilgrimage for her many followers. She designed several other group-housing estates. One, at Mount Kembla in New South Wales, was built for Broken Hill Associated Smelters Pty Ltd. Others remained on paper.

By the 1940s Walling's was a household name and she capitalized on her popularity by publishing four successful books: Gardens in Australia (1943); Cottage and Garden in Australia (1947); A Gardener's Log (1948); and The Australian Roadside (1952). A further monograph, On the Trail of Australian Wildflowers, appeared posthumously in 1984. Several more manuscripts were unpublished. Her influence on twentieth century gardening in Australia was enormous. The visual impact of the hundreds of gardens she created, her extensive writing, and the respect she commanded from those with whom she worked, including Glen Wilson, Ellis Stones and Eric Hammond, had a considerable effect on the next generation. In the 1980s and 1990s she was to become almost a cult figure for many Australian gardeners and a number of books were published about her work.

In the mid-1940s Walling had developed a particular interest in native plants; she had begun using them in domestic gardens in the 1920s. An early and active conservationist, she joined battles to protect the natural environment and crusaded for the preservation of indigenous roadside vegetation. She was an outstanding photographer who always took her camera on her extensive travels. Classical music was another of her passions.

Miss Walling was not a person to be taken lightly. On site, dressed in her customary jodhpurs, jacket and tie, with strong, handsome features, she was energetic, determined and very demanding. These character traits often provoked conflict, especially with some of her wealthy male clients. Yet she was also generous, fun loving and good company, attracting many loyal admirers and friends. By 1967, tiring of the characterless suburbs advancing towards Bickleigh Vale, she moved to Buderim, Queensland, to be in a warmer climate and near to her niece Barbara Barnes. Walling never married. She maintained a close relationship with Lorna Fielden, a teacher for whom she had designed a house and garden, Lynton Lee, at Bickleigh Vale. Fielden also moved to Buderim. Walling died on 8 August 1973 at Nambour and was cremated with Christian Scientist forms.

Select Bibliography

  • P. Watts, The Gardens of Edna Walling (Melb, 1981)
  • B. Hall and J. Mather, Australian Women Photographers 1840-1960 (Melb, 1986)
  • T. Dixon and J. Churchill, Gardens in Time (Syd, 1988)
  • T. Dixon and J. Churchill, The Vision of Edna Walling (Melb, 1998)
  • Edna Walling papers (State Library of Victoria).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Peter Watts, 'Walling, Edna Margaret (1895–1973)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/walling-edna-margaret-11946/text21411, published first in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 30 September 2016.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002

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