One hundred and fifty years ago this year, The Wild Garden by William Robinson was published. An advocate of naturalised planting with mixed herbaceous borders of hardy perennial plants, Robinson challenged the Victorian fashion of bedding plants which had ‘the lifeless formality of wallpaper or carpet’. Robinson stressed that the garden should not be allowed to run wild with annuals sown ‘promiscuously’ but ‘it is best explained by the winter Aconite flowering under a grove of naked trees in February; by the Snowflake growing abundantly in meadows by the Thames side; by the perennial Lupine dyeing an islet with its purple in a Scotch river; and by the Apennine Anemone staining an English wood blue before the blooming of our bluebells.’
Born in County Laois in July 1838, Robinson began work as a garden boy for the Marquess of Waterford at Curraghmore and by the age of 21 was responsible for the glasshouses at Sir Hunt Johnson-Walsh’s estate at Ballykilcavan. In 1861, Robinson allegedly had an argument with his employer and wanting revenge, he let the fires go out in the greenhouses which resulted in many of the tender plants dying. Soon after, Robinson left for London and worked at the Botanical Gardens in Regents Park before becoming a journalist in 1866. Robinson was employed by the Gardener’s Chronicle and then as a horticultural columnist for The Times. In 1871, Robinson started The Garden, an illustrated weekly journal of horticulture with regular contributions from John Ruskin, Gertrude Jekyll and William Morris; it ran until 1927.
Robinson was in many ways a visionary; he lobbied politicians over the protection of Public parks, discussed global warming and aware of the amount of space taken up by cemeteries, wrote a paper on the advantages of cremation over burial. With the success of his publications, Robinson bought Gravetye Manor in West Sussex where he created his own English flower garden. On his death, Robinson left the property to the Forestry Commission and in 1958, after years of neglect, the Elizabethan house and gardens were rescued by Peter Herbert who transformed the estate into the world-renowned hotel. Since 2010, Gravetye Manor has been under the ownership of fund manager, Jeremy Hosking, with Tom Coward, previously of Great Dixter, overseeing the gardens.
*description by the London Evening News on Robinson’s 95th birthday