Robinson in his own words
‘The best-laid-out garden is that which is best fitted for its situation and conditions, and without much consideration as to any “style” in its conception‘
‘There is no beauty among bedding plants at all comparable with that of Irises, Lilies, Delphiniums, Evening Primroses, Peonies, Carnations, Narcissi, and a host of others’
‘There is a great deal too much pruning of Roses’
From Dublin Botanic Garden to the heart of London Society
William Robinson hasn’t left much of a footprint in Regent’s Park, but Regent’s Park left its mark on him. Robinson’s life-long aversion to carpet bedding and Italian style gardens can be traced to his stint from 1861 to 1866 at the Royal Botanic Society (RBS), Regent’s Park (now the location of the Queen Mary’s Garden within the Inner Circle).
Aged 23, Robinson landed a job in charge of herbaceous borders at the then highly fashionable members only RBS. Working there must have been a culture shock. Coming from the Botanic Garden at Glasnevin, how did Robinson cope in an environment where flower shows and partying was at least as important as botanical research? A photograph of Robinson aged 26, shows a dapper young man in a well-cut suit, complete with watch chain. Bearded, his dark hair swept back from his high forehead, and with a pensive expression, Robinson is every inch a hipster. Perhaps he went down better with the posh RBS crowd than one might imagine.
Robinson at the RBS: Learning from doing
In 1863, Robinson made the first of many educational gardening trips that fed his future articles and books. Supported by his boss, Robert Marnock, Robinson got a grant from the RBS to make a month long tour of gardens and nurseries in the UK. He saw alpines at Hull, ferns and orchids at the famous Backhouse nursery in York, and gladioli at Manchester Botanic garden. He approved of the ‘tasteful’ ribbon borders designed by David Thomson at Dalkeith House near Edinburgh. This is one of the few times Robinson had a good word to say about carpet bedding. I discovered this from Robinson’s regular column in the Gardeners’ Chronicle, (perhaps the then equivalent of today’s ‘Gardeners’ World Magazine’). Robinson’s career as an influential gardening writer and ‘father of the English flower garden’ took off while he was at the RBS.
Today (pace the pandemic), no-one would consider a tour of gardens around the UK gardens very remarkable. In the 1860s, however, train travel was relatively new. The east coast mainline had only been completed in 1850. Garden visits would have had to been arranged by letter. This may explain why Robinson didn’t meet all the people he wanted to. Robinson’s first gardening expedition set the pattern for his post RBS career: Go on a tour of gardens (France, Greece, the USA), make connections, get some plants, publish an article, use the fee to fund the next trip.
Robinson was an autodidact on a mission to learn as much as he could about plants and how to grow them. Becoming a gardener,’ he wrote, ‘is a life study’. This may explain why he had no time for gardening experts who offered ‘cookie cutter’ solutions. These ‘arbiters of taste’, as he referred to them, didn’t have his experience, and were ‘degrading the true garden art to the level of the pastrycook’s notions of design’. He had a point.
‘There is a great deal too much pruning of Roses’
Robinson disliked pruning or clipping of any kind, including topiary. Pity the poor gardener who attracted his attention in Hyde Park in November 1891. ‘…I saw a man clipping Hollies at the “Row” end of the Serpentine, and, asking him why it was done, learnt that it was to “keep them in shape,” though, to do him justice, he added that he thought it would be better to let them alone. Men who trim with shears or knife so handsome a tree as the Holly are dead to beauty of form’.
Influenced by Ruskin, Robinson was an artist who delighted in the natural beauty of trees and plants. His writing is driven by curiosity and rooted in observation. He bristles at fellow gardening writers who, in his opinion, were pushing arbitrary design fads without any understanding of plants. If one of the principles of good design is ‘form follows function’, then Robinson’s ‘good gardening’ principle might be something like ‘the right plant in the right place’.
The pugnacious paradox
Richard Bisgrove describes Robinson as a pugnacious paradox. Certainly, Robinson wasn’t afraid to call a spade a spade. His often convoluted prose can have the subtlety of a mallet bashing a stake into the ground. The gardens at Crystal Palace, Sydenham were ‘costly rubbish’. The now lost Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) garden in South Kensington designed by William Nesfield (the same Nesfield who designed Avenue Gardens in Regent’s Park) contained ‘ridiculous broken brick and marble flower beds’. What Robinson was objecting to is the use of coloured bricks and stones to create shapes in the ground. Robinson, obviously, would have preferred plants to stones.
And Robinson was a paradox:
- He travelled alone, but he had a wide network of friends and acquaintances
- He worked for himself, but as the numerous editions of his book, ‘The English Flower Garden’ show, he collaborated with other gardeners like Gertrude Jekyll, and artists such as Alfred Parsons.
- He encouraged readers’ to write and share their gardening experiences. If the Victorians had invented the internet, Robinson would have had a very active FaceBook group.
- He dismissed the terraces at Crystal Palace as ‘railway embankment gardening’ but he built a terrace in his garden at Gravetye Manor in Sussex
- When asked about garden design he said, ‘Don’t worry about a plan, just get on with it.’
In some ways Robinson was a gardening Don Quixote, tilting his pen in vain at carpet bedders, architects, and landscape designers. He also has a touch of Muriel Spark’s sharp tongued schoolteacher, Jean Brodie. Striking an uncharacteristically generous note, he writes, ‘Let those who like bedding flowers enjoy them’. How like Miss Brodie he sounds, she who famously dissed the Girl Guides. ‘For those who like that sort of thing… that is the sort of thing they like.’
Carole Klein chose William Robinson for her ‘Great Life’ on BBC R4. Today many of the gardening approaches that Robinson promoted are part of environmentally friendly and sustainable gardening practice: growing plants in places where they can look after themselves, no dig gardens, less pruning, less hedge and grass cutting, bog gardens, and meadow lawns… We could add prairie gardens to the list.
I think Robinson also deserves credit for bringing together some of the leading Victorian and Edwardian gardeners and artists to create some of the most popular gardening periodicals and books of the 19th and early 20th centuries. I admire Robinson for his energy and drive, for his curiosity and his inventiveness. But most of all I admire his hunger not only for learning about plants, but his personal crusade to share his learning with others. Despite all his achievements, too numerous to describe in this short article, Robinson lost the battle against carpet bedding. In Regent’s Park, at least.
Robinson’s wide circle of friends included Vice-President of the RHS, E A Bowles (whose garden at Myddelton House, Enfield can be visited), colourist Gertrude Jekyll, and Ellen Willmott, after whom ‘Miss Willmott’s Ghost’ (Eryngium giganteum) is named. The trajectory of Robinson’s and Willmott’s lives is sobering. Robinson started life in Ireland as a gardener’s boy and ended up as a gardening expert with an estate in Sussex. Ellen Willmott inherited a fortune and spent it all on her gardens in the UK and France. When she lost everything, Robinson supported her financially. Robinson and Willmott went to Gertrude Jekyll’s funeral together in 1932, shortly after the RBS was forced to close, and the same year that Burton’s glasshouse in the RBS was demolished. Robinson died three years later. He was cremated and buried in Golders Green cemetery which he designed. He was an early advocate of cremation, and one of his many books was written in response to problem of overflowing graveyards that were a hazard to public health. Is there any branch of gardening that didn’t interest Robinson?
William Robinson at a glance
Natural fences that encourage a diversity of plants (and are good for wildlife!)
Iron fences. Robinson was not against the kind of low decorative metal fencing he saw in Paris. You can see this kind of metal hoop fencing in some parts of Regent’s Park e.g. around the winter garden and bordering the lake.
A context specific garden that follows the natural contours of the landscape without sculpture or topiary.
For Robinson, understanding the needs of trees and plants and planting them accordingly is paramount.
|‘Railway embankment gardening’|
Robinson’s term for inappropriate or unnecessary landscaping such as the terraces at Crystal palace.
Robinson believed that landscape designers and architects have no place in garden design. This did not stop him having a terrace built at his home, Gravetye Manor.
|Grass Plain lawns, but not ‘shaved’ too often so that flowers can survive in the grass.||Grass Acres of closely cut grass, the modern term is a ‘green desert’.|
|Gravel Robinson disliked the use of coloured gravel as edging, or to create a pattern in a bed William Nesfield used gravel to define the borders in the Avenue Gardens aka The Italian Garden (where you can see gravel edging today) Robinson was highly critical of the gardens at Witley Court, Worcestershire, also designed by Nesfield.|
Plants, must be hardy Hardy perennials planted and grown in clumps where ‘they can look after them selves’. Narcissi in woods. Aconitum growing under trees. Naturalised bulbs under hay fields Ferns and bog plants in bog gardens.
Plants for bedding out Everything to do with growing and planting out bedding plants because the process is costly, causes damage to roots and soil, and results in bare beds during winter ‘the wise man will reduce the expense of glass, labour, fire, repairs, paint, pipes, and boilers to something like reasonable proportions’. p87 The Wild Garden.
|Planting approach Mixed beds of herbaceous perennials planted in groups Succession planting so that as one plant dies back another succeeds it. Close planting to reduce weeds Don’t worry about having a plan.||Planting approach Rigid geometric plantings that cram plants together so that their individual beaty cannot be appreciated|
Single plants ‘dotted’ about.
|Natural composting At the end of the growing season, leaving leaves and vegetation to die down and form a natural compost.||A bare ground policy Scraping away leaves and vegetation so the ground is left bare all winter.|
|Roses Roses in mixed beds, underplanted with lilies (for example) Single specimen rose bushes and climbing roses growing unchecked through trees (As can be seen in The St John’s Lodge Garden) See Chapter XII of The Wild Flower Garden, 5th edition.||Roses Rose gardens consisting of rose bushes pruned to an inch of their life ‘We must get rid of the old collection of ugly sticks formally arranged as a Rose garden’.|
|Rockeries The design of rockeries was very important to Robinson. He liked those designed by Backhouse nursery near York.||Rockeries He did not like the RBS rockery, probably the one down the side of the mound near the lake.|
|Trees Trees allowed to grow naturally. The beauty of natural form.||Trees Clipped trees so that we cannot appreciate the beauty of their natural form Unnecessary pruning of roses, trees or bushes. Topiary which Robinson considered ‘childish’. Robinson disliked trees cut to look like birds and animals, etc.|
Aurélien Wasilewski, ‘Modern gardeners’ with Rustic Ideals: Fruitful Congruencies between John Ruskin and William Robinson, Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens [Online], 91 Printemps | 2020.
A shortened version of this article appeared in the Summer newsletter of the The Friends of Regent’s Park and Primrose Hill.