Obituary: Richard Robinson

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The Independent Online
Richard Robinson was one of the most distinguished gardeners of his generation. Over a period of 30 years he created with his wife the remarkable garden at Hyde Hall in Essex and in 1993 he gave this, through a trust, to the Royal Horticultural Society, of which he was made an Honorary Fellow the same year.

After studying Medicine at Cambridge, Robinson began his professional life as a pathologist, and was involved in early research into salmonella for the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research. However this life did not suit his restless, agrarian temperament and he abandoned the laboratory for the open air, to begin a new career as a farmer. Within three years, in 1955, he and his second wife Helen Chantler had bought the Hyde Hall estate.

Their gardening began as a means of making some order out of an unprepossessing, desiccated and wind-swept site. The methodical and systematic approach of the scientist informed all of his horticultural activities and he began by making a thorough soil analysis of the whole garden to determine what improvements should be made before planting. In one area of especially glutinous clay he added ammonium sulphate and peat so as to increase the acidity and make the soil suitable for rhododendrons.

Soon, the development of the garden began to take precedence over activities on the farm and in 1974 the farm was let so that the Robinsons could concentrate on what had now become the main focus of their energy and enthusiasm. They shared much of the practical work and went everywhere together, collecting and exchanging plants, and making friends with a wide circle of eminent gardeners. Hyde Hall became home to a vast range of plants including the national collections of Malus (ornamental crab apples) and Viburnum and an impressive array of immaculately pruned roses; a plantsman's garden of the highest calibre.

In addition to his horticultural talents, Robinson was a fine photographer, and for many years the official photographer of the RHS. He bought the Harry Smith photographic library and expanded this remarkable collection into one of the world's largest and most accessible archives of plant photography.

Robinson was a modest and quiet philanthropist who frequently worked behind the scenes to help his friends. When Bill Mackenzie (immortalised by the clematis that bears his name) was in need of a hip replacement, Robinson arranged for it to be done by the top specialist. He was similarly a thoughtful and generous employer and made his principal employees in the photographic library directors of the company.

By the early 1990s, the future of the garden, which now extended to over 25 acres, was becoming an increasing concern to the Robinsons and their friends on the garden trust that had been set up some 10 years earlier. Fortuitously, this was at the same time as the Royal Horticultural Society, under Robin Herbert's enlightened leadership, was looking to expand its sphere of activity beyond London and the south. Hyde Hall was ideally located, well endowed and offered huge scope for the future, with virtually unlimited room for expansion.

Soon after the RHS took over, the Robinsons moved out of Hyde Hall and ceased to be involved in the garden. Although this was entirely as planned by them, it seems ironic that in his last years Robinson was not able to sit back and survey the ground that he and his wife had transformed.

The RHS now have an ambitious masterplan in place for the garden, even though the pace of development is more modest than originally envisaged. Thanks to the Robinsons' generosity there is the opportunity at Hyde Hall to expand the kernel of their creation into a garden of international significance. This would be a fitting tribute to a remarkable gardening partnership.

Tom Stuart-Smith

Richard Henry Martin Robinson, gardener and horticultural photographer: born Hendon, Middlesex 21 March 1917; twice married (one son, and one daughter deceased); died 27 March 1997.