Obituary: Anthony Huxley
Monday 04 January 1993
WITH ANTHONY HUXLEY's death the garden world has lost one of its most distinguished and knowledgeable servants, who earned his reputation more by his pen than his spade.
Born in 1920, Anthony Huxley spent much of his childhood at London Zoo in Regent's Park where his father, Sir Julian Huxley, was secretary. He was educated at Dauntsey's School and Trinity College, Cambridge, spending 10 post-Cambridge years as a 'boffin' with the RAF and the Ministry of Aircraft, and a short spell with BOAC. In 1949 he began a 22-year association with the mass-selling weekly Amateur Gardening, resigning as its editor in 1971 in order to concentrate more on his own writing.
Huxley's name is synonymous with erudition and correctness. His books reflect an unquenchable interest in travel (as much for plants as for nature) although at home he remained a devoted committee man, journalist, editor, lecturer and general horticultural factotum - talents fully recognised by the Royal Horticultural Society's highest awards. He brought a botanist's mind to the garden and indulged himself in the encyclopaedic world of plants. Seeking directions to his house in suburban London several years ago, I was told to 'proceed along Villiers Avenue until you come across a front garden resembling a Douanier Rousseau painting'. There was no mistaking the jungle of tropical-looking Gunnera manicata - never commonplace in Surbiton.
Huxley wrote, co-wrote or compiled almost 40 books. In 1978 he published Plant and Planet, an immensely readable exposition of the botanical kingdom and its essential bearing on all human activity. This was exactly the sort of text, an equivalent perhaps to David Attenborough's television programmes - scientific in approach yet accessible to the layman - which has done so much to highlight global problems and focus necessary attention on them. He was in the vanguard of the conservation movement, being quick, for instance, to discourage the plunder of wild bulbs in the wild. An article he wrote for an early issue of Hortus entitled 'Leave the Trowel at Home (take camera instead)' sounded a timely warning in the acquisitive 1980s when 'botanical tours' were becoming abundant: 'Patience is what needs exercising, and it is a pity that a handful of growers, mostly cactus and orchid fanciers, should find themselves lacking in this, continuing to create a demand for plants taken from the wild.'
Wild flowers (with cacti and what we have come to call house plants) were a passion with Huxley. He enjoyed writing about them as much as he wrote about cultivated plants. With his friend Oleg Polunin he wrote Flowers of the Mediterranean (1965), with Dr William Taylor there was Flowers of Greece and the Aegean (1977), and with Paul and Jenne Davies he brought out Wild Orchids of Britain and Europe (1983).
Above all, I think, it was Huxley's spirit of friendship which made him the success he was. By enthusiasm alone he could sometimes persuade people to take on certain jobs, and curiously - for it seldom works in reverse - he could be just as easily motivated by other people's enthusiastic approach when they sought some task from him.
There is no doubting that his last great publishing commission, as general editor of the massive four-volume New Royal Horticultural Society Dictionary of Gardening, sapped a great deal of Anthony's energy during his last illness. Although he did live to see its publication this year he made no secret of the angst its preparation caused him. Two years ago I asked him if he would write for Hortus an account of this remarkable book's genesis. His reply, dated December 1990, says, 'A discourse on how the job was achieved might be refreshing but probably libellous . . .'
Despite the dictionary's flaws (he was exasperated by errors which could have been corrected), it stands as a permanent memorial to a man whose marshalling of people and plants was seemingly easy and equally efficient.
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