William Robinson was a pioneer in gardening and introduced so much that we now take for granted. For some reason, he is not remembered in the same way as innovators such as Gertrude Jekyll, but he was just as influential. He was a vociferous advocate for the overthrow of the bedding out system and the adoption of a naturalistic method of planting. He was not unique in his views, in fact he jumped on a bandwagon that had alreay been going for several years. But he popularised them through the medium of his books and his gardening journals. He started several journals, including The Garden and Gardens Illustrated. In the latter, he included an advice column and must have startled his readers, when his suggestion for dealing with cats in the garden was to trap them and drown them
He was incredibly opinionated and he had a talent for stirring up controversy and making enemies. At different times he attacked ‘ landscape architects’, (his particular bugbear), botanists, topiarists as well as advocates of carpet bedding. He particularly hated botanists: ‘ The stock of bad Latin which we owe botanists leads to some people to cut capers with that language with fearful results- the terms which issuing from the mouths of botanists are bad enough, when descending into those of gardeners are grotesque indeed’. In fact, Robinson’ s insistence on using English names causes confusion in his book, not only did he use English names, but he made them up too. One of his last books was called: The Virgin’ s Bower, which baffled me, coming from a confirmed bachelor, who presumably had no interest in virgins. The book is actually about clematis, one of his passions. The texensis hybrid, ‘ Gravetye Beauty’ is still popular today, as is Clematis montana ‘‘Earnest Markham’ named after his head gardener.
When Canon Ellacombe, a noted gardener of the time, mildly suggested that gardens are a matter of taste and everyone should please himself, his outraged response was: ‘the old notion of tamely acquiescing in the belief that all things are ‘a matter of taste’ will not do. The future of our gardens depends on calling ugly things by their names... That it is a matter of taste is the expression of hopeless and blind weakness’. That was telling him.
I love the description of him by Edward Lutyens: ‘ Been for a long walk with W.R. I left him because he bores so. He starts for a walk, never says where he is going and then stops here and there and goes off at tangents- his conversation wayward and he contradicts himself every two minutes until one feels inclined to explode.’ Despite his irritating ways, he had a wide circle of illustrious gardening friends, although they were mainly confined to letters and short visits.
His contradictory nature lead him to make odd claims. He had firm ideas about what he called ‘wasted effort’ and wrote scathingly about moving earth as being a total waste of time. But on another occasion, he explained how to make a beautiful lawn by removing the’ top foot of the soil, draining 12-18 inches with the addition of burnt ballast, digging to a further foot depth, then adding a foot of good soil… on this the turf to be laid and top-dressed with fine ballast, wood ash and the top 2 inches of soil from the woods, all sifted and mixed up well’. Right, now I know where I was going wrong, I’ll give that a try tomorrow.
One of his other bugbears was what he called ‘book learning’. He hated it, which is odd as he wrote so many books himself. He also hated greenhouses and the whole business of growing bedding plants. Robinson grew up in Ireland where he progressed from being a garden boy to the position of foreman. There is a story, probably apocryphal, that he argued with his boss and walked out, but not without damping down the fire and leaving all the windows open in the greenhouse and so killing all the plants. If true, how neat that with one fell swoop he could attack greenhouses, bedding plants and someone who had the temerity to disagree with him.
His two most well-known books are The Wild Garden and The English Garden which was extremely popular and went into many editions. Later editions had illustrations by Alfred Parsons. Several contributors wrote articles on various subjects for the book and in later editions, when the authors were conveniently dead, he claimed the articles for his own. There is a long list of desirable plants in the book (the names are in alphabetical order, in the despised Latin.) I know he loved dramatic foliage, but I was surprised to see him recommending Japanese Knotweed, Fallopia japonica. He probably helped to popularise this scourge of the countryside. He also admired the viciously dangerous Giant Hogweed, Heracleum mantegazzianum for its stature. He called it Giant Parsnip, which makes it sound rather endearing and possibly edible. I hope nobody tried it. Another decorative plant I was surprised to see him mention is Cannabis sativa, as being a fine, graceful plant for the back of the border. It would certainly have to be right at the back of the border these days.
For a former garden boy from Ireland he did very well for himself. From his writing and some canny investments he was able to buy the beautiful Tudor Gravetye Manor when he was 46. He devoted the rest of his life to restoring the house and creating the most beautiful grounds.
Today, Gravetye Manor in Surrey is a luxurious hotel with a Michelin star restaurant. The head gardener, Tom Coward used to work at Great Dixter with Fergus Garrett. The gardens have been brought back to their former glory and are staggeringly beautiful.
A great feature is Robinson’s walled kitchen garden. This is elliptical and I believe this shape for a walled garden is unique. It means that there are no frost corners. The sandstone for the 12 foot walls was all quarried from the estate. Here vegetables and flowers for the hotel are grown.It is beautifully maintained.
A visit to Gravetye manor has been on my bucket list for years. On our recent jaunt to Brighton, we stopped here on the way home. We enjoyed Sunday lunch in the beautiful wood-panelled dining room and spent the afternoon strolling round the fabulous garden. I now want to come back here for afternoon tea, the tables are dotted around the garden and look very inviting.
Spending time here is like going back in time and being on an Edwardian weekend house party. I felt as if I had stepped into a P.G. Wodehouse story and quite expected to see Gussie Fink-Nottle looking for newts in the the pond.
Actually, never mind afternoon tea, I want to spend a weekend here. In fact I want to live here.
The title for this blog post came from a great book about William Robinson. It is written by Richard Bisgrove and is called: William Robinson: The Wild Gardener. The book is sumptuously illustrated. It was published in 2008 and is out of print now. It is sometimes offered for silly prices, but if you look around you can still find it for quite reasonable prices. William Robinson still remains an enigmatic figure because not much seems to be known about his private life. I know that has nothing to do with his gardening work, but I am nosy and love biographies about writers and gardeners that reveal all. You don’t get that here, but it is still an interesting book.