John Garth meets the extraordinary creator of one of the most storied and unusual Oxford college gardens.
By John Garth
The ultramodern greenhouse at Corpus Christi is part cultivation centre, part cabinet of curiosities.
Among the cacti and tumbling rosehips, a landscape painting by a lodge porter stands alongside Madame Lulu — a salvaged shop dummy surreally equipped with bow and arrows, parrot and crab.
In the huge frameless plate-glass front window are items mostly collected by Corpus gardener David Leake while beachcombing — shells, a dried razorbill head, stones picked for their likeness to the seals of his beloved Norfolk coast.
David washed up at Corpus just as haphazardly in 1979 after a decade and more hitching around Europe, North Africa and Asia. To top up his funds he had occasionally gardened in the London parks; then, on a whim, he took a National Certificate of Horticulture. The Greater London Council refused to adjust his wages to match a qualification it did not recognise, but the certificate won him the Corpus job. ‘They like bits of paper in Oxford,’ he says.
He found the gardens run down through lack of full-time care. Today, a vigorous 67-year-old with an equally vigorous grey mane and beard, he still plans, plants and maintains the college grounds four days a week, tending its other Oxford properties with an assistant on the fifth.
We walk and talk in the Corpus quads and gardens. Here is the quince tree whose fruit goes to friends and Fellows. Here, flourishing in the heat from the kitchen vents, is a Wollemi pine – an early Jurassic species thought extinct until its rediscovery in Australia 20 years ago. Here the library windows are framed by bamboo, including one named after a college donor. David also grows olive trees, rosemary and wild roses in honour of the tradition of classical learning at Corpus.
There is something of the medieval illuminator in the way he fills his margins with symbols. But David, whose motto is rus in urbe – the countryside in the city – will not confine himself to the borders. In his greenhouse window is a cartoon: across a suburban garden wall, a suited gent on close-mown grass hectors a hippy who stands to his elbows in what looks like a prairie. David laughs, ‘It it sort of symbolises my relationship with the college.’
There was some strain during the 15-year presidency of Sir Keith Thomas, who favoured a St John’s-style formality. David has enjoyed more freedom since, under Sir Tim Lankester and current incumbent Richard Carwardine. But he has removed hollyhocks from the Front Quad paving, plus a trailer full of ivy and jasmine, after a word from the president. ‘It was getting a bit jungly,’ he concedes.
In a parallel universe David might have given rein to his wildest dreams. Improbably, he had applied to succeed Sir Keith himself. Electioneering also formed an occasional parallel channel to his gardening, with several attempts to get onto Oxford City Council – for the Greens, as an independent opposing them, and even (in a favour for a friend) as a Conservative.
Had he won the Corpus presidency, David says he would have weeded out old elements of hierarchy. ‘I go and eat my lunch in a room full of mops and buckets having carried it from the counter, and the fellows and lecturers sit up in a very smart room and have someone coming and taking away their plates,’ he observes tartly.
‘I would also like to clear the war memorials in the chapel from all the stuff in front so we can actually read the names, especially with the war centenary here.’
He insists he would also have found time for the garden in between his presidential duties. At any rate, the college rejected his application at an early stage, perhaps because of some of the more colourful aspects of his beatnik years in the Middle East.
So he remains a gardener, accepts the give-and-take involved in running his empire as a fief of the college, and recognises that among those his gardens must impress are Corpus’s potential benefactors.
‘I don’t think any other college would allow this in their garden,’ he says of his greenhouse bric-à-brac. ‘I’m employed by them and I have to do what they want me to do — though it is a balance with what I want to do. On the whole they leave me alone, and you can’t ask for more than that.’
In 2009 the Fellows’ Garden, which he had worked for 25 years, was razed to accommodate the MBI Al Jaber Building auditorium by architects Rick Mather Associates (who also designed the new greenhouse). It was a controversial move. But David has found consolation in the roof terrace vista of Christchurch Meadow, affording such scenes as deer leaping through the floodwaters of a bright January morning. Here he also helps a graduate student tend a beehive in honour of 16th-century founder Bishop Fox, who wanted the college to be like a hive bringing forth sweetness.
Whatever occasional qualms some fellows may have about David’s exuberant tastes, others speak of his gardening in terms the bishop might have approved.
‘He’s brilliant,’ says Dr Liz Fisher, reader in environmental law. ‘I say to the grad students that the college gardens represent the creativity we’re trying to encourage. It’s always unexpected, not regimented — an inspiration.’
Portraits of David Leake © Oxford University Images / Joby Sessions. Stone archway looking into the Garden Quad © Oxford University Images / Greg Smolonski. This article first appeared, slightly abridged, in the Michaelmas 2014 issue of Oxford Today.