Obituary: Chris Philip
Wednesday 11 February 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.
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