It’s ironic that one of the most influential men in English gardening history was actually Irish. William Robinson was born in 1838, and studied horticulture at the National Botanic Gardens at Glasnevin near Dublin. As a teenager, he worked at a grand garden in Waterford, then on the estate of an Irish peer, before moving to London in his early twenties.
His job at Regent’s Park – looking after hardy plants and wildflowers – must have had a major influence on his gardening predisposition, and Robinson soon became a vociferous opponent of mixed herbaceous borders of hardy perennial plants and the strict, formalised Victorian gardens of planted-out bedding arrangements.
At 29, Robinson began working for the influential magazine, The Gardener’s Chronicle, and in 1871, he launched his own magazine, The Garden. He also started writing gardening books, of which The Wild Garden (1871) and The English Flower Garden were the most successful. First published in 1883, The English Flower Garden went on to become one of the world’s best-selling gardening books of all time.
William Robinson changed the face of English gardens, turning his back on the rigidity of flower garden design at a time which had, he noted, ‘thousands of plants set out in formal and geometrical array, the result, a bad carpet’. His ideas about growing hardy perennials in mixed borders to create a more natural look were radical at the time and were directly opposed to the Victorian practice of planting numerous annuals in large formal blocks. Robinson even criticised the Garden of Versailles, calling it ‘terrible’!
Robinson was most vocal against ‘pretend’ Italian and French gardens, standard roses, and other ‘tricks’ common in garden design at the time. He preferred, instead, to use close-packed plantings of perennials and groundcovers that expose no bare soil; alpine plants in rock gardens; and the liberal use of native plants and hardy perennials. These ‘wild’ plantings furthered Robinson’s ideas of a garden being one that blends into the larger landscape of the water’s edge, the meadow and the woodland.
In 1884, using income and royalties from the magazine and his books, together with money from some property deals, Robinson bought Gravetye Manor, an Elizabethan house and farmland near East Grinstead in West Sussex. This is where he lived until his death, planting, experimenting, writing and acquiring more land – eventually he owned more than 400 hectares.
Much of the estate had been managed as a coppiced woodland in which Robinson planted huge drifts of cyclamen, scilla and narcissus (in 1897 alone, he planted somewhere in the region of 100,000 narcissi). On the edges of the woods, and in cleared spaces, he oversaw plantings of lily, Japanese anemone, pampas grass and acanthus, together with hundreds of shrubs such as stewartia, nyssa, and fothergilla.
In flower beds closer to the main house, he planted red valerian, which he allowed to spread naturally around paving stones and staircases. Under the trees that surround the lake, he planted thousands of daffodils that in spring present a truly amazing sight.
In the first chapter of The English Flower Garden, Robinson compared gardening to art, and wrote: ‘The gardener must follow the true artist, however modestly, in his respect for things as they are, in delight in natural form and beauty of flower and tree, if we are to be free from barren geometry, and if our gardens are ever to be true pictures. And, as the artist’s work is to see for us and preserve in pictures some of the beauty of landscape, tree, or flower, so the gardeners’ should be to keep for us, as far as may be, the living things themselves.’
In 1899, Robinson extended the house, adding stone walls which were the perfect backing for perennial beds and a formal garden. A short distance below the house, he created a wildflower meadow and also planted hundreds of trees. Among these is a handkerchief tree (Davidia involucrata), which is one of the oldest and largest in Britain.
The extraordinary walled vegetable garden he created is oval-shaped, south-facing, and covers an area of nearly 1 hectare. Walled gardens are known to be substantially warmer than the ground outside and at Gravetye the difference is around 3-4 degrees Celsius.
Unfortunately, when Robinson died in 1935 at the extraordinary age of 96, the gardens were neglected until the 1950s, when Gravetye Manor was opened as a hotel by Peter Herbert, who worked on renovating the garden until his retirement in 2004.
The new head gardener, Tom Coward, is following in Robinson’s footsteps, ensuring colour and ‘wildness’ in the formal and informal flower beds from late March until the end of October, and overseeing some much-needed restoration projects.
Garden enthusiast, Dakota Murphey, wrote this article. Working alongside one of the UK’s leading garden designers, Andy Sturgeon.