Obituary: Chris Philip

Michael Christopher Philip, book editor and fireworks impresario: born London 7 September 1928; died Bartestree, Herefordshire 10 January 1998.

For gardeners, The Plant Finder is the most useful invention since the trowel. First published in 1987, and since then annually, it is already indispensable. Like all pivotal ideas it seems supremely obvious: simply to list all plants and shrubs available in Britain, and where to obtain them. But it took a man of immense drive and application to turn the idea into reality.

Chris Philip was an archetypal polymath. Educated at Oundle, he decided not to go into the family firm of atlas publishers, George Philip & Son, but instead became interested in the burgeoning field of electronics. He began his career with EMI, then took a job with a recording studio close to Broadcasting House in London.

In 1952 he met Denys Gueroult, a BBC music producer, and they remained together for more than 45 years. Being a gay couple in the Fifties required discretion and fortitude. Friends say it was the attraction of opposites. Where Gueroult is outgoing to the point of flamboyance, Philip was reserved. He hated parties because he found that small talk interfered with his train of thought as he grappled with whatever enterprise currently monopolised his attention.

When commercial television began in 1955 he joined Lew Grade's ATV, holder of the London Weekend franchise, as transmission controller. He impressed Grade with his practical, down-to-earth approach. When the company decided it needed an on-screen clock, he bought one in Soho for less than pounds 2 and mounted it in a simple box. It told viewers the time between programmes for several years.

Becoming bored with television, in 1962 he turned himself into a tough theatrical agent, bullying impresarios into paying his clients more than they intended. A few years later his career took another twist when, on holiday in Malta, he became intrigued by the elaborate splendour of locally made fireworks.

He was appalled to find that they could not be imported into Britain because the authorities claimed they contained a hazardous mix of chemicals. Philip arranged for the scientific analysis of British-made fireworks and established that they included the same ingredients.

As a result, the ban was lifted. He set up a company, Festival Fireworks, that organised spectacular displays all over the world, notably the one outside Buckingham Palace for the Queen's Silver Jubilee in 1977. He developed ingenious systems to ensure that the shows could always go on, even in pouring rain. At the same time he built up a library of books on fireworks, then published a unique bibliography of fireworks literature.

This venture, involving the creation of a meticulous database, paved the way for his crowning achievement. In 1983 he and Gueroult bought a house in Worcestershire with a six-acre garden. Its previous owner was a daffodil collector who had dug up all his bulbs, leaving the garden a barren waste.

Gueroult, the keener gardener of the two, seeking to restock it with a variety of plants and shrubs, was frustrated to discover that there was no comprehensive guide to suppliers of particular varieties. So Philip doggedly set to work to compile one, starting by writing to more than 2,000 nurseries for their catalogues.

The first edition of The Plant Finder listed some 20,000 plants. The latest has 70,000, derived from nearly 800 nurseries. Now published by the Royal Horticultural Society and selling more than 40,000 copies a year, it has become not just a buyers' guide but a recognised authority on plant nomenclature. It has also encouraged the growth of new specialist nurseries, now that there is a reliable means of reaching potential customers. Just after his death, Philip was awarded the RHS's Veitch Memorial Gold Medal for his contribution to horticulture.

"When he wanted to do something he would not be stopped," says Gueroult. "He would carry it through to the end, regardless. In all the jobs I've known him do, you only had to tell him it couldn't be done, and he'd find a way to do it." Long hours at the computer screen probably contributed to his worsening sight in recent years, and possibly to the brain tumour diagnosed last May. From then, a remorseless physical and mental decline culminated in his death in a hospice last month.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Sport
England's women celebrate after their 3rd place play-off win against Germany
Women's World CupFara Williams converts penalty to secure victory and bronze medals
Arts and Entertainment
Ricardo by Edward Sutcliffe, 2014
artPortraits of LA cricketers from notorious suburb go on display
News
newsHillary Clinton comments on viral Humans of New York photo of gay teenager
Arts and Entertainment
The gang rape scene in the Royal Opera’s production of Gioachino Rossini’s Guillaume Tell has caused huge controversy
music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator - Spanish Speaking

£17000 - £21000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator - German Speaking

£17000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator - Japanese Speaking

£17000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: If you are fluent in Japanese a...

Recruitment Genius: Graphic Designer - Immediate Start

£16000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Day In a Page

The Greek referendum exposes a gaping hole at the heart of the European Union – its distinct lack of any genuine popular legitimacy

Gaping hole at the heart of the European Union

Treatment of Greece has shown up a lack of genuine legitimacy
Number of young homeless in Britain 'more than three times the official figures'

'Everything changed when I went to the hostel'

Number of young homeless people in Britain is 'more than three times the official figures'
Compton Cricket Club

Compton Cricket Club

Portraits of LA cricketers from notorious suburb to be displayed in London
London now the global money-laundering centre for the drug trade, says crime expert

Wlecome to London, drug money-laundering centre for the world

'Mexico is its heart and London is its head'
The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court that helps a winner keep on winning

The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court

It helps a winner keep on winning
Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

Is this the future of flying?

Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

Isis are barbarians

but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

Call of the wild

How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate
Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

The science of swearing

What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

Africa on the menu

Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'