Una van der Spuy

Una van der Spuy

Photo: Peter vd Spuy

I emphasise the photography of her latest book because firstly, the photography of her previous books is striking and secondly, she tells a rather sad, to my eyes, story of how she visited one of her sons in Australia at the age of 95. During this trip she fell and broke four vertebrae and while bed-ridden, her son gave her a digital camera. ‘‘What a joy and what fun I have had taking photographs of the garden to illustrate this book,” she writes. But still: a pity that none of her film photos taken over decades were used.

The preface of her latest book might make it sound as if she were a photographic novice, which is quite untrue: in Die groot veldblommeboek vir die tuin (Wild flowers of South Africa for the garden, 1971) she thanks a famous South African photographer and head of the Dept of Photography at the University of Stellenbosch, Alice Mertens ‘‘who taught me everything I know about photography”. And she knew a considerable amount: her photos were always vivid. Close-ups against strong monochrome backgrounds, or beautifully composed visual vignettes of the plant as it has been used.

Una van der Spuy didn't set out to be a gardener and photographer. Buying the dilapidated property of Old Nectar (a portion of a larger farm given to freed slaves in 1692) changed her life. The farm had had various owners and inhabitants over the past 300 years, including the parents and elder siblings of the beloved South African writer, Eugène Marais, in the 1840s.

Her husband, who had played a leading role in founding the South African Air Force, had taken retirement and wanted to devote himself to rose-growing and she was a political studies graduate (‘‘a 29-year-old who hardly knew a cabbage from a carnation” she calls herself, armed with only Brunning's Australian Gardener). In starting to turn what they found into a well-watered garden, with pools and terraces and a famous pergola, her husband provided her with access to a secret weapon: Italian POWs. >>