William Robinson (1838-1935) did for the garden what William Morris did for interior design. The “wild garden” movement he started was so successful that many today do not realize the English Cottage Gardens they admire today are largely the result of Robinson’s dedication to traditional gardening practices.
Born in Ireland in 1838, Wiliam Robinson took a fancy to gardening from an early age, and by 21 he was in charge of many greenhouses. The story goes that one day, the fires keeping the greenhouses warm burned out and the plants died. Robinson was discharged (Massingham, 61). Although he quickly found employment with the Royal Botanic Garden, Robinson had developed a dislike for hothouses that lasted him the rest of his adult life.
In the introduction to The Wild Garden, Robinson describes arriving in London just as the Royal Horticultural Society’s Garden at Kensington was being constructed and the Crystal Palace was being landscaped. He commented that it was like “all the theatrical gardening Versailles reproduced in Surrey”(62). He found the repetitive patterns rather boring and complained that this “false and hideous art” had acheived such popularity that “all but the poorest cottage gardens” were following suit (62). Robinson was just beginning to discover the beauty of England’s wildflowers and trees and he decided to make “wild gardens” his life’s work. Over the next few years, Robinson toured France, Italy and the United States observing different gardening styles.
In 1871, Robinson founded his own gardening journal, called “The Garden.” The premier issue contained articles by the likes of Oliver Wendell Holmes and John Ruskin, who remained a frequent contributor to the magazine (William Morris himself also wrote for The Garden). Robinson was an avid reader of Ruskin’s work and it shows in his design philosophy.
Robinson’s most famous contribution to gardening was his book The English Flower Garden, which he published in 1883. He encouraged his readers to aim for a less strictly structured garden, arguing that “the best kind of garden grows out of the situation, as the primrose grows out a cool bank”(69). While Robinson favoured “wild” gardens, he felt that grouping flowers together in an artful way was important. The greatest contribution of the book was probably the introduction of the “herbaceous border” which most gardeners are quite familiar with.
In 1884, the success of Robinson’s gardening journal and his book had made him enough money that he was able to purchase Gravetye Manor, a beautiful Elizabethan home on several hundred acres near East Grinstead, Sussex. The only work he did on the house was to change the fireplace back to a wood burning one–Robinson hated coal, a symbol of industrialization–and refused to have it burnt in his home. The rest of his energies he devoted to transforming the gardens into a wild English paradise. He kept a diary of his plantings, which is published under the title Gravetye Manor, or Twenty Years of the Work round an Old Manor House. Today, Gravetye Manor is considered one of the most beautiful examples of the gardens of the Arts and Crafts Movement.
When William Robinson appeared on the scene, the Victorian obsession with patterned gardens was at its height. He championed the informal, or “wild” garden at a time when almost everyone saw formal, patterned gardens, populated with hothouse flowers as the most beautiful. William Robinson was ahead of his time. He couldn’t have even known the full importance of preserving the heterogeneity of English horticulture at the time he wrote his books. His instinct to preserve native plants likely saved a large number of wildflowers from extinction. Like Morris and Ruskin, he was certainly ahead of his time.
Source: Betty Massingham, “William Robinson: A Portrait” Garden History, 1978.
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