The story of the Abkhazis and their Garden really began in 1920s Paris when the young Marjorie (Peggy) Pemberton-Carter first met the exiled Georgian Prince Nicholas Abkhazi. They established a strong friendship that was nurtured by correspondence and occasional meetings whenever Peggy visited Paris.
Their separate lives were filled with personal tragedy. Peggy was orphaned at age three, sent to live with uncaring relatives and adopted by a rich, childless couple. After her adoptive father died, Peggy spent her early adulthood as the constant companion of her domineering adoptive mother, traveling the world but never putting down any roots. It was only after her mother’s death in 1938 that Peggy was free to live as she chose; she settled in Shanghai, the city of her birth.
Nicholas fled the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia with his mother in 1919. They settled in Paris and awaited reunion with Nicholas’ father, the hereditary ruling Prince of Abkhazia, in Georgia. The reunion never happened as Nicholas’ father was executed in 1923. The young prince lost his father and all income from his hereditary estate; he struggled to look after himself and his mother for the next 20 years.
The Second World War saw both Nicholas and Peggy interned in prisoner of war camps: Nicholas in Germany and Peggy in a camp near Shanghai. During her internment, at great risk to her personal safety, Peggy kept a secret diary of her war experiences that was published as A Curious Cage in 1981. She also managed to keep hidden, in a container of talcum powder, a small quantity of travellers’ cheques that she used, upon her release, to purchase a passage to San Francisco. From there she would make her way to Victoria at the invitation of her closest friends, the Mackenzies, to recuperate and plan her next move.
Peggy arrived in Victoria in December 1945 and by March had decided to use the money from the sale of her property in Shanghai to buy the large treed and rocky lot that would soon become Abkhazi Garden. She immediately hired landscapers to begin clearing the property and commissioned an architect to design her summerhouse. By the fall of 1946 her land was fenced, the summerhouse was built, and lawns and fruit trees were planted. In January of 1946, Peggy had received a letter from Nicholas. They had lost contact with each other during the war and did not know that the other had even survived. Nicholas proposed a meeting in New York, as he was planning to travel there in the fall. Peggy agreed to meet him and their reunion, their first in 13 years, turned into an engagement. The time was right for the two of them to be together. They returned to Victoria and were married in November 1946.
The Abkhazis had each led privileged lives in their early days. Their tastes were refined and they shared a great appreciation for music, literature and art. Their garden became the focus of their own artistic creativity. Working with a magnificent site, they chose to explore its possibilities; not be stifled by its limitations. They carefully chose plants that would enhance its natural beauty, seeking out the best available plants from the finest nurseries of the day. The list of their gardening mentors is a who’s who of Victoria’s most distinguished horticulturalists. For over 40 years the Abkhazis continued an intense process of experimentation and constant refinement. Later in life Peggy would admit that “the garden became our child.”
Nicholas died in 1987, and Peggy remained in their home for the next two years. After she died in 1994, at age 92, the Garden changed hands a few times. It was purchased by TLC, The Land Conservancy of British Columbia, in February 2000, after a successful campaign to rescue it from becoming a high-density townhouse complex. TLC currently holds a mortgage for $535,000 on the property.
Much more information about Peggy and Nicholas Abkhazi and their life together can be found in two biographies – A Curious Cage, Peggy Abkhazi’s autobiography; and A Curious Life, by Katherine Gordon.
Prince Nicholas Abkhazi
Born 1899 in Tbilisi, Georgia.
Died December 25, 1987 in Victoria, B.C.
Marjorie (Peggy) Pemberton-Carter
Born 1902 in Shanghai, China.
Died November 14, 1994 in Victoria, B.C.