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Farrer, Reginald Johnlocked

  • Basil Morgan

Farrer, Reginald John (1880–1920), traveller and plant collector, was born on 17 February 1880 at 3 Spanish Place, Marylebone, the elder of two sons of James Anson Farrer (1849–1925), barrister, whose country home was at Clapham in the North Riding of Yorkshire, and his wife, Elizabeth Georgina Ann, daughter of Colonel Reynell-Pack. The Sitwells were second cousins. Farrer was born with a harelip (and probably a cleft palate), which he later disguised with a thick moustache; during a childhood in which he underwent frequent operations he was educated at home, and on solitary excursions studied the flora in the local limestone hills. In 1889 his father inherited the Ingleborough estate, and when only fourteen Farrer redesigned the alpine garden there, and wrote a note in the Journal of Botany on the occurrence of the sandwort Arenaria gothica on Ingleborough Fell, its only known British habitat. In 1898 he followed family custom in attending Balliol College, Oxford, where he graduated in 1902. While at Oxford he aided the Revd H. J. Bidder in the construction of the celebrated rock garden at St John's College.

In 1903 Farrer went on his first long journey, reaching Peking (Beijing), briefly visiting Korea, and spending about eight months in Japan, where he had an affair with a geisha girl and his drift to vegetarianism was hastened by the discovery that he had eaten his pet kitten, served as fricassée of chicken. His first book, The Garden of Asia (1904) was an evocative account of his stay. At this time Farrer's plant and gardening interests were subsumed in his ambition to become a novelist, poet, and playwright. Between 1905 and 1911 he published two poetic dramas and five novels, of which The Anne-Queen's Chronicle, with its heroine Anne Boleyn, was the best. All now forgotten, their undisciplined alternation of satire and melodrama, marionette-like characters, and ill-connected episodes appear today as 'an adolescent … mixture of cleverness and silliness' (Taylor, 121). Yet Farrer had an acute appreciation of the novelist's art, and was devoted to Jane Austen, on whom he wrote a memorial article for the Quarterly Review (1917). 1907 saw the publication of My Rock Garden, his most popular and influential work and continuously in print for over forty years. A sequel, Alpines and Bog Plants, followed in 1908. Early in 1908 he accompanied his friend, Aubrey Herbert, to Ceylon, where he further immersed himself in the religious mystery and ethics of Buddhism. On his return he published In Old Ceylon, a discursion on Sinhalese religion, history, literature, and art. Farrer then inadvisedly ventured into politics: his witty scepticism sat uneasily with the high moral seriousness of pre-war Liberalism and, although he was elected a Yorkshire county councillor (and was a JP for the West Riding), he was defeated in a parliamentary contest at Ashford, Kent (January 1910). He spent much of the £1000 given him by his father for election expenses on buying cypripedium orchids.

Hardly a year passed between 1903 and 1913 when Farrer did not make a pilgrimage, with gardening friends, including Edward Augustus Bowles, to the Dolomites, Dauphiné, or the Alpes Maritimes, 'his novitiate for the more serious work of plant collecting in the East' (Cox, 433). These visits resulted in books like Among the Hills (1911) and in 1913 The Dolomites ('a land of magic, enclosed by peaks like frozen flames'; p. 1), which are full of vivid descriptions and clearly convey the beauty in plants. In May 1912 Farrer's Craven Nursery Company won a first prize for alpines in the Royal International Horticultural Exhibition at Chelsea.

From April 1914 Farrer spent two years with William Purdom, a Kew-trained gardener, in Kangsu, north-west China, and in Tibet, collecting specimens and seeds, despite the lawlessness of the area. He had a narrow escape from drowning after a 20 ft fall from a rickety bridge. Arguably the most exciting of their finds were Gentiana farreri, 'which burned in the alpine turf like an incandescent turquoise' (Allan, 192), and the winter-flowering guelder-rose, Viburnum farreri; but others, like Geranium farreri, Aster farreri, and Clematis macropetala, can also be found today in specialist nurseries. On his return Farrer described his expedition in the flamboyant On the Eaves of the World (1917) and the posthumously published The Rainbow Bridge (1921). Back in England by the spring of 1916, Farrer, declared unfit for war service, joined the Ministry of Information (1916–18). For part of the time he worked for John Buchan, who regarded his description of the Somme as 'the best thing that has been done on that battlefield by a long way' (quoted in Illingworth, 76); it was printed in The Void of War (1918).

1919 saw the publication of The English Rock Garden, a massive two-volume work of 1000 pages, which Farrer had written in 1913. Although in dictionary form, it is long-winded, opinionated, and at times perverse; yet Farrer had the ability to transmute botanical phraseology into pleasurable reading, and it is full of memorable literary conceits like his description of hyacinths as 'immense frizzed women of the world, scented and unctuous and rather stolidly complacent' (vol. 1, p. 419). In 1919, accompanied by E. H. M. Cox, and from a base at Hpimaw, Farrer explored the highlands of Upper Burma, then botanically little known in England. He wrote thirty-nine separate articles for the Gardeners' Chronicle on the expedition. Unfortunately, few of the beautiful plants they discovered proved suitable for propagation in Britain, which lacks the constantly saturated soil and atmosphere of their native terrain; among those which have adapted are the scarlet ginger-wort, Hedychium coccineum, the weeping cypress, Juniperis coxii, and the spruce, Picca farreri, while Farrer's Burmese rhododendrons can be seen in Windsor Great Park and the Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh. After Cox returned home, Farrer pressed on to Nyitadi, where, in a leaky bamboo hut, sodden by rain and mist for weeks at a time—'never have I known a country to cry so constantly' (quoted in Coats, 176)—he became ill, and on 17 October 1920 died, probably of diphtheria. He was buried six days later at Kawngglanghpu (not Konglu, as was previously believed), where a fenced-off grave has a brass tablet with the words: 'He died for love and duty in search of rare plants.' He was unmarried, but at the time of his death was looking for a wife.

Farrer overcame delicate health and stunted stature to become a self-contained (yet sociable) figure, with immense vitality and mental agility. He had black hair and dark, speaking eyes; his sallow complexion, which became more florid with age, caused him often to be regarded as of far eastern extraction. His conversation was agreeably lively, yet artificial in manner, and his vanity meant he 'liked to air the contents of a well-stored and observant mind' (Sitwell, 17–18) in a rather startling voice that could sound 'like one of those early gramophones fitted with a tin trumpet' (ibid., 16). Farrer was sensitive about this—a rare example of a Yorkshireman with an inferiority complex. Not an easy man to deal with, he could be considerate to friends, but he was crotchety, he could be outrageously offensive, and his conversation and writings were peppered with biting sarcasm. He summed up his dislikes in a letter to Osbert Sitwell from Nyitadi in 1920: 'I hate lies and humbug, journalism, Christianity, domesticity, dulness, and European civilisation in general with a fury that, if I let it, makes me feel quite ill' (Sitwell, 21).

Farrer's style of writing displeased many of his colleagues, and today his works are mainly consulted for their picturesque and poetic descriptions rather than for knowledge about plants. Although his herbarium collections, sent to Edinburgh, the prime centre for the study of Sino-Himalayan plants, were notable for the expressive detail of his field notes, his approach to taxonomy could be cavalier, and as a historian of the English rock garden he was unreliable. Farrer wrote at least nineteen books, some illustrated with his skilful paintings of plants as discovered in their natural habitats. His name appears in some thirty-six plant descriptions—but for the First World War and the fact that no seeds from his final Burmese expedition survived, his impact might have been even greater. He was awarded the Gill memorial by the Royal Geographical Society (1920), and he is commemorated in a 4 mile nature trail in the Yorkshire Dales National Park, which overlooks some of his own plantings.


  • G. Taylor, Some nineteenth century gardeners (1951), 116–60
  • M. Allan, Plants that changed our gardens (1974), 172–99
  • W. T. Stearn, ‘An introductory tribute to Reginald Farrer’, Reginald Farrer, dalesman, planthunter, gardener, ed. J. Illingworth and J. Routh (1991), 1–7
  • A. le Lievre, ‘Travelling eastward: Farrer's journeys described’, Reginald Farrer, dalesman, planthunter, gardener, ed. J. Illingworth and J. Routh (1991), 19–25
  • O. Sitwell, Noble essences or courteous revelations (1950), vol. 5 of Left hand, right hand, 13–24
  • E. H. M. Cox, ‘Reginald Farrer (1880–1920)’, Journal of the Royal Horticultural Society, 95 (1970), 433–7
  • J. L. Illingworth, ‘The correspondence of Reginald Farrer’, Reginald Farrer, dalesman, planthunter, gardener, ed. J. Illingworth and J. Routh (1991), 72–78
  • W. B. Elliott, ‘Farrer and the Victorian rock garden’, Reginald Farrer, dalesman, planthunter, gardener, ed. J. Illingworth and J. Routh (1991), 27–33
  • W. T. Stearn, ‘Plant names commemorating Reginald Farrer: a bibliographical record’, Reginald Farrer, dalesman, planthunter, gardener, ed. J. Illingworth and J. Routh (1991), 43–53
  • A. P. Bennett, ‘The herbarium collections of Reginald Farrer’, Reginald Farrer, dalesman, planthunter, gardener, ed. J. Illingworth and J. Routh (1991), 55–62
  • B. E. Smythies, ‘The last resting place of Reginald Farrer’, Journal of the Royal Horticultural Society, 96 (1971), 234–6
  • M. Hadfield, Pioneers in gardening (1955), 227–231
  • A. M. Coats, The quest for plants (1969), 174–6
  • I. Elliott, ed., The Balliol College register, 1833–1933, 2nd edn (privately printed, Oxford, 1934)
  • b. cert.
  • N. Shulman, A rage for rock gardening: the story of Reginald Farrer, gardener, writer and plant collector (2001)


  • priv. coll., file, incl. letters to E. H. M. Cox
  • RBG Kew, English and Asian letters, vol. 115 letter no. (666–669), vol. 120 letter no. (1356–1358), vol. 126 letter no. (587A), vol. 149 letter no. (46–47)
  • Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh, files relating to expeditions to Kansu, China, and Upper Burma, File Herb/9/41, File Herb/7/4/1–2
  • Som. ARS, corresp. with Aubrey Herbert


  • photographs, repro. in Illingworth and Routh, eds., Reginald Farrer, cover

Wealth at Death

£1378 15s. 11d.: probate, 14 Nov 1921, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

R. Desmond, (1977); rev. edn (1994)