Bowles, Edward Augustus [Gussie]
- William T. Stearn
Edward Augustus Bowles (1865–1954)
Bowles, Edward Augustus [Gussie] (1865–1954), horticulturist and watercolour painter, was born on 14 May 1865 at Myddelton House, Bull's Cross, Enfield, Middlesex, the fourth of five children of Henry Carrington Bowles Bowles (formerly Treacher; 1830–1918), a landowner and governor of the New River Company who had changed his name on inheriting from his maternal uncle, and his wife, Cornelia (1824–1911), daughter of George William Kingdom RN of Sheerness. The versatility of Cornelia's ancestor the Revd Robert Ferryman Cross (1749–1838) in both the planning of gardens and in designing gaol locks became a legend in the Bowles family. A remote Huguenot ancestor was Aimé Garnault (d. 1740), merchant-jeweller in Paris, naturalized as British subject in 1700: in 1724 his brother Michael Garnault acquired Myddelton House, which Bowles inherited in 1918. The Garnaults astutely acquired a large block of shares in the New River Company which Bowles's grandparents Edward Treacher (1792–1863) and Ann Bowles inherited in 1799. Bowles lived all his life at Myddelton House.
Although his elder brothers Henry Ferryman (1858–1924), a lawyer, and John Treacher (1860–1887), an army officer, were educated at Harrow School, Bowles was educated at home by a governess and then a tutor, after losing the sight in his right eye at the age of eight. In 1881 the local clergyman taught him Latin and Greek, and in 1884 he entered Jesus College, Cambridge, where he studied theology and Hebrew, intending to become an Anglican clergyman. He graduated BA in 1887. The death, from tuberculosis, of his brother John and his sister Medora (1868–1887) in 1887 put an end to his plan to take orders. Instead his grief-stricken parents encouraged him in outdoor pursuits, such as entomology, ornithology, gardening, and landscape painting. Friendship with the keen gardener and scholar Canon Henry Nicholson Ellacombe (1822–1916), who visited Myddelton House on New River Company business, developed Bowles's interest in horticulture. He often visited Ellacombe at Bicton vicarage in Gloucestershire, where he was able to consult Ellacombe's remarkable library of horticultural and botanical books. In old age Bowles gratefully remembered Ellacombe as 'the foremost both in time and ability of my teachers in garden-craft' (Stearn, 324).
At Myddelton House, Bowles began to amass a similar library for himself, to take over his father's dull garden, to stock it with interesting and beautiful plants, and to construct, in 1893, a rock garden in a meadow remote from the house. The gravel subsoil and low rainfall restricted his range of plants but favoured the cultivation of crocuses, daffodils, and other bulbous plants which specially interested him. In May 1897 he became a life member of the Royal Horticultural Society, and he was made a member of its scientific committee in 1902; from then until within one month of his death he served on various committees including the scientific, library, floral B, narcissus, and tulip committees and the council. In 1916 the society awarded him its highest honour, the Victoria medal of honour.
Bowles was a profoundly religious man, and undertook the tactful relief of distress among the local poor as his father's representative. His father rebuilt the local almshouses and lent him a house for a night school where local boys learned to read and write, or do bookkeeping or played games. Bowles also taught in the local Sunday school. From 1913 he became a registered lay reader and churchwarden at Forty Hill church near by. He also became a captain in the Boys' Brigade. Meanwhile Bowles's renown as a horticulturist spread among the best gardeners of the period and the interest of his garden, stocked with uncommon plants, brought many visitors to Myddelton House. Bowles needed no gainful profession. His income came from investments inherited from the Garnaults, from his great-grandfather H. C. Bowles (1763–1830), a publisher and printseller, from the Treachers as navy and tallow chandlers and soapmakers, and from New River revenue.
In December 1912 E. Hooper Pearson, editor of the Gardener's Chronicle, suggested to Bowles the writing of three or four books descriptive of his garden season by season. Thus originated Bowles's celebrated trilogy My Garden in Spring (1914; repr. 1997), My Garden in Summer (1914; repr. 1997), and My Garden in Autumn and Winter (1915; repr. 1998); the reprints lack coloured plates but contain revised botanical nomenclature. In these Bowles takes the reader around the garden, commenting on this feature and that, this plant and that, with special attention to early-flowering genera such as Crocus, Galanthus, Narcissus, Tulipa, and Anemone. Reginald Farrer wrote in 1914 that they showed 'how a gentleman can wear his garb of knowledge with a gay air and humour, dignified yet easy, and whimsical and personal' (Stearn, 366). There followed in 1924 A Handbook of Crocus and Culchicum for Gardeners (2nd edn, 1952) based on growing, observing, and painting crocuses, his 'first garden love' (Stearn, 367). A Handbook of Narcissus followed in 1934. His intended work on Anemone in collaboration with W. T. Stearn was not completed at the time of his death in 1954.
The New River flowing through the Myddelton House estate divided Bowles's garden in two. The southern half had the kitchen garden, a glasshouse, and frames, in which grew crocus seedlings. The northern part, on which stood Myddelton House, was devoted to ornamental and interesting plants and a large ornamental pond originally excavated for gravel. Nearby was the rose garden with the decorative old Enfield Market Cross and the ‘lunatic asylum’ devoted to plants of abnormal forms. Everywhere in spring were snowdrops and daffodils. Beds of bearded irises lined the path by the New River. All of this was Bowles's creation, marked by a characteristically charming informality. For many years he opened his garden for charitable purposes and delighted in taking parties around and discussing plants in flower.
In 1889 Bowles made his first trip abroad, to Italy, with his brother Henry and sister-in-law Dolly. In 1898 he made a longer Mediterranean journey with Dolly and a friend to Malta, Egypt, Italy, and Greece. On later summer excursions abroad, he went to the Alps in an effort to escape hay fever and in company with Reginald Farrer, the rock garden enthusiast, went to Mount Ceni and the Tyrol. From these journeys he brought back for his garden plants which required dry soil. Plants commemorating E. A. Bowles include the Greek species Culchicum buculesianum, the alpine hybrid Primula x bowlesii, Vincu ‘Bowles variety’ (collected at La Grave, near Grenoble), and many garden plants, among them Crocus and Chrysantus ‘E. A. Bowles’, ‘Hebe Bowles' hybrid’ Narcissus ‘Bowles white’ and Milium effusum ‘Bowles' golden grass’. Wherever he went, he took his paintbox with him and his exquisite watercolours of flowers and a few of his landscapes are now mostly in private hands.
Bowles visited most of the great gardens in Britain and Ireland before the First World War, when they were in their heyday. A country gentleman following no gainful occupation, he combined high intellectual and artistic gifts with an ever kind and generous disposition. His wide knowledge, unostentatiously shared, his generosity, his integral wisdom, and sense of humour made him many friends, young and old, throughout his life. He died on 7 May 1954 at Myddelton House and was cremated on 11 May. His death thus broke the last links with the great amateur horticulturists of late Victorian times, with H. M. Ellacombe, C. Wolley-Dod, Ellen Willmott, H. J. Elwes, and others. It also ended the Garnault–Bowles association with the property, which had belonged to his family since 1724.
Bowles's garden deteriorated during the two world wars and never completely recovered from them. His much praised rock garden became derelict and the branch of the New River (the haunt of kingfishers and grass snakes), which ran attractively through the garden, was filled in, its course marked by a lawn. For many years after his death, Bowles's lasting influence was necessarily through his books and the plant varieties that bear his name. In 2011 the gardens at Myddleton House were re-opened to the public after renovation work.
- W. T. Stearn, ‘E. A. Bowles (1865–1954): the man and his garden’, Journal of the Royal Horticultural Society, 80 (1955), 317–26, 366–76 [publications listed]
- B. Hewitt, The crocus king: E. A. Bowles of Myddelton House (1997)
- M. Allan, E. A. Bowles and his garden at Myddelton House (1865–1954)  [pubns listed, not always reliably]
- b. cert.
- d. cert.
- Walford, County families (1875)
- NHM, corresp. and papers
- Royal Horticultural Society, London, MSS
- Herts. ALS, letters to Lewis Watson
- photograph, Royal Horticultural Society, Lindley Library [see illus.]
- photographs, repro. in Allan, E. A. Bowles and his garden
- photographs, repro. in Hewitt, Crocus king
- portrait, repro. in Daffodil Year-Book (1934)
Wealth at Death
£89,139 5s. 10d.: probate, 4 Sept 1954, CGPLA Eng. & Wales