Edmund De Rothschild: Banker and horticulturalist who modernised Rothschilds and restored the family gardens at Exbury

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The Independent Online

Edmund de Rothschild, scion of the great financial family, was born into a life of fabulous wealth and surrounded himself with fabulous plants. His garden was described by Sir John "Jock" Colville, private secretary to Winston Churchill, as: "A sight of unparalleled beauty with its blaze of red and gold". He was a success in both business and horticultural terms, though he never quite regarded himself as a natural banker and once mused that he might have been happier as a doctor. Itwas said of him, as had been said ofhis father, Lionel, whom he followed into both banking and horticulture, that he was "a banker by hobby and a gardener by profession". During his years at the head of N.M. Rothschild and Sons he maintained its position as one of the city of London's foremost financial institutions.

Edmund Leopold de Rothschild, born in 1916, and familiarly knownas Eddy, was the great-great-grandson of Nathan Meyer Rothschild, who founded Rothschild's banking institution in London in 1798. The bankwas central to Britain's fortunes over the centuries, having, for example, helped to fund the Napoleonic wars. Nathan amassed great wealth, reputedly becoming Europe's richest man. Edmund's father, Lionel Nathande Rothschild, both headed the family firm and developed an intense interest in plants and flowers, particularly rhododendron and azalea. Acquiring the Exbury Estate near Southampton in 1919, Lionel set to work with almost industrial zeal. He established anirrigation system based on 22 miles of underground pipes fanning out froma large, brick water-tower. In thegarden, which had already been described as an earthly paradise, armies of men were set to work clearing woodland and removing the undergrowth of ages.

Edmund said admiringly of his father: "He bought 250 acres at Exbury and set about turning them into a garden. It took 250 men 20 years to double-dig and improve the soil and plant it up." Lionel not only cultivated familiar flora but also introduced exotic specimens from the Himalayas and south-east Asia, helping to sponsor expeditions which brought them to England. Those who came to Exbury to admire the spectacle, often at weekend house parties, included royalty – King George V and Queen Mary, the Duke and Duchess of York – as well as figures such as Winston Churchill.

As a boy, Edmund attended Lockers Park preparatory school and Harrow, before going to Trinity College, Cambridge. In his memoirs, A Gilt-edged Life (1998), Edmund mentioned just one instance of anti-semitism, in the form of an insult at his prep school. After Cambridge, he spent a year and a half travelling around the world, taking in the Andes and Africa, Afghanistan and Burma. The Rothschild name opened many doors, giving him access to eminent personages such as Mahatma Gandhi.

Returning to England in 1939 Rothschild's gave him the task of working on the affairs of Jewish families who had fled Germany, but barely had he got his feet under a desk when war broke out. Having already served with the Territorials, he rose to the rank of major, serving with the Royal Artillery and later with the army's Jewish Brigade. His war took him to France, North Africa, Holland and Italy, where he was slightly wounded. After the liberation of Rome he had an audience with the Pope, saying of the occasion that "as a Jew I felt doubly proud".

Edmund's father died in 1942. In 1946 he rejoined the family bank where he was to spend three decades of his life, working at first under his uncle Anthony. Edmund was a seniorpartner during the 1960s and, after Anthony fell ill, was chairman from 1970 to 1975. Unlike some Rothschilds, he was not regarded as a commanding figure in the world of finance, but heis credited with modernising the bank, increasing the role of non-familymembers and stepping up its international activities in countries such as Canada and Japan.

After some initial hesitation, Edmund had after the war decided to restore the gardens of Exbury. The estate had taken a battering during the conflict, having been requisitioned by the Navy in 1942 at just 48 hours' notice and suffering neglect as horticulture took second place to warfare. Edmund recalled: "When I came back from the war the garden was still very beautiful – but often I wouldn't go into it because it was too beautiful after all the horrors I had seen."

But eventually he made the decision to undertake a complete restoration and spent the following decades doing so. In the years that followed Exbury would attract many visitors and many horticultural awards.

Edmund's charity work included causes such as the Queen's Nursing Institute, the Not Forgotten Association for disabled ex-service personnel, the Association of Jewish Ex-Servicemen and Women, and the Council of Christians and Jews.

He married twice, first in 1948 to Elizabeth Edith Lentner, with whom he had four children, and who died in 1980. Two years later he married Anne Harrison, whom he had known as a young man.

"I met Anne when she was a nurse with the Parachute Regiment," he explained. "I was one of her first boyfriends. But there were religious difficulties. She wasn't Jewish – itmattered in those days... She married a friend of mine. Then in our greying years we both became free to marry again, and religious difficulties no longer mattered."

Edmund Leopold de Rothschild, banker and horticulturalist: born London 2 January 1916; chairman, N.M. Rothschild and Sons 1970-75; chairman,Asia Committee, British National Export Council, 1971; president, Exbury Gardens Ltd, 2000-09; married1948 Elizabeth Edith Lentner (died 1980; two sons, two daughters), 1982 Anne Harrison; died Exbury, Hampshire 17 January 2009.