- E. Charles Nelson
William Robinson (1838–1935)
Robinson, William (1838–1935), horticulturist and publisher, was born on 15 July 1838 in Ireland, the son of William Robinson and his wife, Catherine, née Farrell (c.1818–1892). While reticent about his origins, Robinson did acknowledge that he came from Ireland: he 'kept an affection for his native land, but seldom came back to Ireland' (Moore, 459). Consequently many inaccurate statements have been published about his birthplace, training, and family background. Allan (1982) stated that he had a brother, James, as well as a sister (unnamed), but their existence has not been confirmed.
No information can be traced about William's childhood and education until he became a garden-boy at Curraghmore, co. Waterford, 'his first job being that of carrying water from the … river … to the glasshouses' (The late William Robinson, 202). He would have served subsequently, for two years each, as an apprentice and a journeyman, but it is not known in which gardens he worked. Eventually he was engaged as foreman gardener at Ballykilcavan, near Stradbally, in Queen's county, by the Revd Sir Hunt Johnson-Walsh. A story, which cannot be verified, relates that one night, following a violent disagreement with Johnson-Walsh, Robinson 'drew out all the fires in the glass-houses and opened every window' (Taylor, A great nineteenth-century gardener, 923) and then left Ballykilcavan and walked to Dublin. He obtained a 'recommendation' from David Moore, curator of the Royal Dublin Society's Botanic Gardens, Glasnevin, Dublin, and proceeded to London, where, early in 1862, he found employment in the Royal Botanic Society's gardens at Regent's Park, under Robert Marnock. Before long Robinson was appointed foreman of the educational and herbaceous department there. He resigned in June 1866 'to devote himself to the study of our Great Gardens and to the Literature of Horticulture for a year or two' (Allan, 50). He had already written articles for the Gardeners' Chronicle, and in January 1867—with commissions from that periodical, The Field, and The Times—travelled to France, where for seven months he studied horticultural practices, visited gardens and nurseries, and attended the Universal Exhibition. Two books resulted: Gleaning from French Gardens (1868) and The Parks, Promenades and Gardens of Paris (1869). Later he travelled more extensively in Europe.
By May 1868 Robinson had a house in Kensington, London, where he employed a housekeeper and gardener. In 1870 there appeared one of his more famous works, The Wild Garden, as also did Alpine Flowers and Mushroom Culture. That autumn he visited the United States of America, journeying by rail as far west as San Francisco. Another tale relates that Robinson's brother accompanied him because the two were intent on finding, and demanding money from, their father, who allegedly had eloped there with a lady of the St George family. In fact William travelled alone, and the story about his father's infidelity cannot be verified.
In 1871 Robinson published A Catalogue of Hardy Perennials, Hardy Flowers, and The Subtropical Garden. By that year he had sufficient capital to establish a weekly, illustrated periodical devoted to horticulture. The Garden started publication on 25 November 1871; Robinson edited it until 1899 and owned it until 1919. Other periodicals followed: La Semaine Française (1878–83); Gardening (1879; later entitled Gardening Illustrated); The Garden Annual, Almanack and Address Book (1881); Farm and Home (1882); Woods and Forests (1883; merged with The Garden, 1886); Cottage Gardening (1892–8); and Flora and Sylva (1903–5). He also started, 'in a fit of pique' (Taylor, Some Nineteenth Century Gardeners, 76), a very short-lived daily newspaper called London. His most important work is The English Flower Garden (1883), which has been described as 'the most widely read and influential gardening book ever written' (Allan, 137). It was not, however, solely by Robinson; many of the sections were the acknowledged work of others. Nor was it entirely original, because Robinson drew substantially on his earlier books, notably Hardy Flowers. Fifteen editions, some reprinted several times, appeared during Robinson's lifetime.
Robinson was elected a fellow of the Linnean Society of London on 19 April 1866 and a fellow of the Royal Horticultural Society about 1903. Despite his undoubted influence and stature he never received, or never accepted, any honours—he refused the Victoria medal of honour from the Royal Horticultural Society, and a knighthood 'freely offered him [was] graciously declined' (Allan, 227).
His publications were generally profitable, and soon Robinson was wealthy, able to invest in property in London and, eventually, to purchase Gravetye Manor estate, Sussex. He took up residence at Gravetye in August 1885 and lived there until his death. Robinson remodelled the Elizabethan manor house, remade the garden, and enlarged and planted the estate. He wrote about Gravetye in several books, including Gravetye Manor (1911) and My Wood Fires (1917).
Robinson was a vegetarian. He was a bachelor, although in the 1860s he was briefly engaged to be married. In 1909 he fell, injuring his spine; this caused a flare-up of latent syphilis and he became paralysed and was confined to a wheelchair for the rest of his life. He died at Gravetye on 12 May 1935 and was cremated at Golders Green on 15 May. As early as 1880, in God's Acre Beautiful, Robinson himself had promoted this rite, and he had designed the layout of the grounds at Golders Green crematorium.
His books and periodicals provided Robinson with platforms from which to promote his own philosophy of gardening, and in this he was pre-eminently successful. Robinson, it is widely claimed, was 'responsible for sweeping away … carpet-bedding' (Allan, 138) and promoting a more relaxed style using hardy plants. He was a belligerent and capricious character with strongly held, sometimes (especially in later life) contradictory, views, who was not afraid to criticize his contemporaries, especially landscape architects. Opinions about him were, and remain, discordant. For example Mitchell averred he was 'sensitive' and 'a saint', while Edwin Lutyens found him boring and cantankerous. In 1933 R. H. Crane eulogized him as 'The father of the English flower garden' (Allan, 224), and Taylor concluded that he was the 'greatest of English gardeners' (A great nineteenth-century gardener, 924). The obituarist of the Gardeners' Chronicle cautioned against 'ascribing to him almost supernatural powers that he did not possess' (18 May 1935), a view echoed by Elliott, who argued that 'Robinson was not a revolutionary figure, but a popularizer … [who] to a considerable degree … engineered the creation of his own myth' (Some sceptical thoughts, 217).
- M. Allan, William Robinson, 1838–1935: father of the English flower garden (1982)
- G. Taylor, ‘A great nineteenth-century gardener’, The Listener (16 Dec 1948), 923–4
- G. Taylor, Some nineteenth century gardeners (1951)
- R. Duthie, ‘Some notes on William Robinson’, Garden History, 2/3 (1974), 12–21
- ‘The late William Robinson’, Gardening Illustrated (18 May 1935), 202
- ‘William Robinson’, Gardeners' Chronicle, 3rd ser., 97 (1935), 323–4
- R. Duthie, ‘An addendum to the article “William Robinson: a portrait” by Mrs Bettey Massingham’, Garden History, 6/2 (1978), 20–21
- B. Elliott, ‘Some sceptical thoughts about William Robinson’, The Garden, 110 (1985), 214–17
- A. Grove, ‘Robinsoniana’, Gardeners' Chronicle, 3rd ser., 97 (1935), 378–9
- B. Massingham, ‘William Robinson: a portrait’, Garden History, 6/1 (1978), 61–85
- P. Moore, ‘William Robinson centenary’, Gardening Illustrated (23 July 1938), 459
- E. C. Nelson, ‘An Irish bachelor as father of the English flower gardens: a review of William Robinson, 1838–1935 by Mea Allan’, Moorea, 2 (1983), 54–6
- E. C. Nelson, ‘William Robinson's letters to Frederick and Phylis Moore’, Moorea, 5 (1986), 29–37
- The letters of Edwin Lutyens to his wife Lady Emily, ed. C. Percy and J. Ridley (1985)
- B. Elliott, Victoria medal of honour, 1897–1997 (1997)
- G. D. R. Bridson, V. C. Phillips, and A. P. Harvey, Natural history manuscript resources in the British Isles (1980)
- d. cert.
- Merseyside Naturalists Association, Liverpool, copy corresp. and papers
- Royal Horticultural Society, London, papers relating to Gravetye Manor
- W. Sussex RO, corresp. and papers
- Harvard U., Gray MSS
- Hove Public Library, Sussex, letters to Lord and Lady Wolseley
- National Botanic Gardens, Glasnevin, Dublin, Moore MSS
- Carolus-Duran, oils
- F. Dodd, etching; Sothebys, 22 Oct 1970, lot 4 [see illus.]
- photographs, repro. in Allan, William Robinson
Wealth at Death
£95,954 gross; £72,783 net; left Gravetye Manor and estate to the nation: Allan, William Robinson, 234