Keir Davidson obituary

My friend Keir Davidson, who has died aged 74, was a landscape designer and author. His books range from the history of Zen gardens in Japan to an account of Coleridge’s groundbreaking Lakeland fell walks in the early 19th century.

Born in London, son of the distinguished African historian and radical journalist Basil Davidson and his wife, Marion (nee Young), a Jungian psychotherapist, Keir attended St Paul’s school, London. His gap year was spent in Zambia teaching civics to high-school students, followed by four years at Leeds teacher training college. In 1973, he moved to the Welsh Marches to help a friend restore an abandoned 14th-century building. There he began garden and construction work, while in the evenings playing guitar with his band in local pubs.

From 1976 to 1981 Keir lived in Japan, teaching English as a foreign language and developing a deep interest in Zen garden design. His book Zen Gardening was published in 1982, followed a year later by The Art of Zen Gardens. He also embarked on a long quest to research the life of the 14th-century Japanese monk Musō Soseki. A Zen Life in Nature: Musō Soseki in His Gardens was finally completed and published in 2007. He regarded it as his profoundest work.

In 1983, Keir received a letter from a wealthy American who, having read The Art of Zen Gardens, wanted him to transform 1,300 bare acres in upstate New York into a manmade landscape of streams, ponds, waterfalls and trees. It was a massive undertaking, lasting 18 years. During this time, in 1985, in New York City, Keir met Linda Crockett, a nutritionist and a potter who later became an alternative health practitioner. They married in 1988.

Soon after returning to the UK in 1996 he began working for the Russell family at Woburn Abbey in Bedfordshire, initially designing and building a pond for the Duke of Bedford. He went on to work on the restoration of Humphry Repton’s original 18th-century landscape designs for the family, and was eventually given unlimited access to research and write Woburn Abbey: The Park and Gardens, published in 2016 and described in Country Life as “the best country-house history published in recent years”. Two years later, in 2018, he published O Joy for Me!, in which he retraced Coleridge’s walks in the Lake District.

At the request of the Duke of Bedford’s brother Lord Robin Russell, he continued researching the Russell family history. His handsome double biography of the sixth duke and his second wife, Improbable Pioneers of the Romantic Age, telling of their involvement with early 19th-century developments in the arts and sciences, was published in May 2022.

Three months later Keir was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumour. He died at his home at the foot of a mountain, surrounded by rocks and trees, and beside a running stream.

Keir is survived by Linda and by his brothers, Nick and Jas, and many nieces and nephews.