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BOOK REVIEWS

Miss Willmott of Warley Place
Her Life and her Gardens

By Audrey le Lievre
Published by Faber & Faber, 1980
ISBN 0-571-11622-1

Reviewed by S. Challenger

Riches and power are not normally an attribute of the horticulturist. But the subject of this biography, Ellen Willmott, (1858-1934) successfully linked this unusual triumvirate together. Born into a well-to-do upper-middle-class family — her father was a solicitor who was also a very sound financier, making very profitable investments in the world-wide railway boom — Ellen Willmott eventually inherited both the family finances and the family house, at Warley Place in Essex and she then devoted the rest of her life to spending that fortune on horticultural pursuits. This biography is the fascinating story of that progression — although one may justifiably equally say it was a down-hill path, to a lonely and financially-difficult end.

Miss Willmott was obviously a complex person, and Audrey le Lievre traces her story well. Miss Willmott inherited a sense of her own importance and she moved easily into the upper echelons of society, becoming friend and confidant of Edward VII and Queen Alexandra, and George V and Queen Mary. She used these social contacts for the benefits of her horticultural interests. Cajoling, bullying manipulating — she made her determined way forward in collecting, publicising, and distributing the varied range of plant material she grew at Warley Place. Even today, almost 50 years after her death, there are few knowledgeable gardeners unaware of the range of "Willmottiae, Willmottianum", or "Warley, Warleyensis, Warley Rose" species or cultivars which commemorate the family name or that of the family estate. Ceratostigma willmottianum, Corylopsis willmottiae, Cistus "Warley Rose", Lilium davidii "Willmottiae", Aethionema "Warley Rose", Epimedium warleyense, Paeonia obovata var. willmottiae, Scabiosa caucasica "Miss Willmott", and Rosa willmottiae are some of the shrubs, bulbs, perennials and alpines one still finds, even in New Zealand horticultural references; le Lievre lists eight pages of plants which once bore these appendages.

To collect, grow and select these manifold forms and varieties required tremendous endeavour, and this is where the family fortune was used to the full. She bought prodigiously, to supply not only Warley Place, but also her European gardens at Tresserve at Aix-Le-Bains, France, and at Boccanegra, close to Sir Frederick Hanbury's famous garden 'La Mortola', Italy; and their culture was on an equally prodigious scale too.

The garden staff at Warley Place alone totalled 104 in its heyday — all equipped with their uniforms of green and natural straw boaters, green silk ties and navy-blue aprons. Little wonder that even the Willmott family fortunes — with railway stock in New York, the Argentine, London and Liverpool, and of such a character that Ellen Willmott's annual birthday present from an aunt was 1,000 — began to bend under the strain. It was a slow but inexorable change. When Miss Willmott died she was living in just three rooms of the enormous three-story Warley Place.

But the decay took more than thirty years to reach its climax. In the interim the social manipulation of the garden and its plants continued, and the seed lists were sent out world wide. Even the last seed list, in 1932, contained over 600 names and the buying went on by the thousand. Not satisfied with an interest in plants themselves Miss Willmott entered the publishing field, too. "The Genus Rosa" was published for her between 1910 and 1914, in twenty five parts. The price of a guinea per part did not recoup the costs, and since Miss Willmott was totally unsatisfied with anything except the best of paper, printing and of colour reproduction for the 131 beautiful water-colour plates by Alfred Parsons, the costs still mounted. Eventually parts languished unsold on the shelves; today, paradoxically, it is worth between $1,400-1,600. Another of her publishing ventures — "Warley Gardens in Spring and Summer" — a fine collection of collotype plates of her famous garden — made a total of 7.1.8 for its author!

But these ventures made her name and her reputation. Her contacts with the Royal Horticultural Society, the prime arbiter of taste and fashion in horticulture, were considerable. Not only was she one of the initial recipients of the Victoria Medal of Honour, its prime honour, but she belonged to several of its committees over long periods — the Lily, Narcissus, and Floral B. More significantly, she played a major part in obtaining Wisley, the present-day Royal Horticultural Society gardens, for the Society; she was largely instrumental in persuading her later neighbour at Boccanegra, Sir Thomas Hanbury, to buy Wisley's 60 acres and present it to the Society. Undoubtedly, a woman of ability, drive and charm — and accustomed to getting her own way.

Yet Miss Willmott had her bitter side. One gains the impression from le Lievre's biography, that to Ellen Willmott people were to be used because they were useful, or ignored and even denigrated if they were not. Her relationships with her wide-ranging nursery contacts were singularly unhappy, for she queried her accounts, delayed payment, and expected stock to be kept for her over long periods without charge. The delivery of copy "The Genus Rosa" drove the publisher, Messrs John Murray, almost to distraction; and her garden staff at Warley Place regarded her warily. Whilst generally fair she is known to have deducted the equal of a 5/- per week old-age pension from the wages of an employee, when he elected to carry on working. With treatment meted out in this manner even her circle of intimates contracted. There is no doubt that towards the end of her life she enjoyed the fight as much as she enjoyed winning.

It is from human foible like this that our world is made. Without her tenacity and drive the horticultural field would be the poorer. We are indebted to le Lievre's efforts for this pioneer study of a complex and interesting person. The definative study still has to be written, but in the interim this account can provide an excellent service by whetting our appetites about an era and style we shall never see again.

Annual Journal (Royal New Zealand Institute of Horticulture) 1981 9: 104-105

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Last updated: November 4, 2005