Obituary: Sir George Taylor

BRINSLEY BURBIDGE

George Taylor, botanist: born Edinburgh 15 February 1904; Principal, Air Ministry 1940-45; Deputy Keeper of Botany, British Museum (Natural History) 1945-50, Keeper of Botany 1950-56; Director, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew 1956-71; Kt 1962; FRS 1968; married 1929 Alice Pendrich (died 1977; two sons; marriage dissolved), Norah English (died 1967), 1969 Beryl, Lady Colwyn (died 1987), 1989 June Maitland; died Dunbar, Lothian 12 November 1993.

GEORGE TAYLOR combined, in a remarkable way, the scholarship which made him one of the great botanical scientists of his day; the sensitivity to design and the knowledge of plants which made him an outstanding horticulturist and garden designer; the strength which made him a notable explorer and a fine gardener; and the vision and determination which made him a truly great director of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

Taylor was born in Edinburgh in 1904 and educated at George Heriot's School. Later, he went to Edinburgh University where he gained a First Class honours degree (BSc) in botany in 1926. The botanical sciences were taught at the Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh and it was during this time that he acquired a wide knowledge of the world's plants and discovered and developed an abiding enthusiasm for gardening which was to stay with him, as his great passion, for the whole of his life.

Taylor was a good field naturalist and always believed that a true understanding of plants only came from seeing them in the wild. His botanical explorations began with an expedition to South Africa and Rhodesia in 1927-28 and in 1934, while working at the British Museum (Natural History), he became joint leader of their expedition to the Ruwenzori and other mountain groups in East Africa. Though he remembered these journeys as being scientifically important, he gained the greatest pleasure from joining Major George Sherriff, a fellow Scot, and Frank Ludlow of the Natural History Museum on an expedition to Bhutan and the south- east of Tibet in 1938. It was here that he met, in their native habitats, so many important garden plants such as rhododendrons, primulas, gentians and the Himalayan blue poppies. The blue poppies known, botanically, as Meconopsis were the subject of part of his research which culminated in the publication of his 'Account of the Genus Meconopsis' (1934) which remains the definitive monograph of the group.

After the Second World War, in which Taylor served as a principal in the Air Ministry, he became Deputy Keeper and then, in 1950, Keeper of Botany at the British Museum (Natural History). In 1956 he became Director of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, where he remained until he retired in 1971.

Kew was the perfect place in which Taylor's numerous talents could be brought to bear on a major undertaking: that of keeping the Royal Botanic Gardens at the forefront of botanical scientific research work as well as developing the gardens themselves as a leisure attraction. He threw himself with vigour into both and negotiated the addition of the cooler, moister and more acidic gardens at Wakehurst Place, in East Sussex, to Kew's acres in 1965. He conceived and steered through the Queen's Garden behind Kew Palace as a skilful recreation of a 17th-century garden. This was opened to visitors in 1969. Both remain as lasting memorials.

What is less known is the effect Taylor had on Kew as a whole. He was a good planner and an able administrator. He searched, constantly, for underused or repressed talent among the staff and he supported and promoted those he believed had real ability into positions where they could have real influence; he never let Ministers of Agriculture forget about Kew and he continually lobbied, effectively, for additional funds. He had a genius for what is now known as 'networking'. A list of the committees, trusts, societies and other bodies on which Taylor had a place as a trustee or a director make up a substantial part of his entry in Who's Who. He was never slow to use these positions of influence to further the causes of good botanical science and horticulture, especially at Kew, and long after his retirement he served on the boards of many grant-giving bodies.

Taylor's awards were numerous. He was given the Royal Horticultural Society's highest award, the Victoria Medal of Honour, in 1956, and was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1968. He was always enormously proud of the Scottish Horticultural Medal which he received in 1984.

George Taylor was a wonderful raconteur with a great memory for detail and mischievous sense of humour which was often directed at those for whom he had little time. You were never left in any doubt as to whether he liked you or not. He was a tough, outspoken man who could be a formidable opponent but who was also immensely supportive of projects and individuals in whom he believed; he commanded respect in all who worked with him.

George Taylor, botanist: born Edinburgh 15 February 1904; Principal, Air Ministry 1940-45; Deputy Keeper of Botany, British Museum (Natural History) 1945-50, Keeper of Botany 1950-56; Director, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew 1956-71; Kt 1962; FRS 1968; married 1929 Alice Pendrich (died 1977; two sons; marriage dissolved), Norah English (died 1967), 1969 Beryl, Lady Colwyn (died 1987), 1989 June Maitland; died Dunbar, Lothian 12 November 1993.

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