It was a sad day when I opened an e-mail to tell me that David C.H. Austin (or ‘Mr A’ to many of those who knew him) had died at the age of 92. So close to the company’s Christmas party, I imagined, just a couple of days before the anniversary of the death of his wife, Pat. You can read the official obituary of someone who will always be one of my heroes on the David Austin Roses website. Here, I’m sharing my memories of the man who changed my life when he approved my appointment to one of the most fascinating jobs I can imagine.
All men dream: but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds wake in the day to find that it was vanity: but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act their dreams with open eyes, to make it possible. (T.E. Lawrence)
I should perhaps give a little background first, for those who didn’t know him. David C.H. Austin’s collection of 240 English Roses made him one of the UK’s most highly celebrated gardening personalities. His understanding of what the rose could be (looking back, we can say ‘was fated to be’) set him apart from his contemporaries. A practical dreamer, he was able – through gritty perseverance, an iron will and his ability to sweep others along with him – to dream in the day and make his vision real.
Commercial horticulture was in his blood: by the age of seven, young David was demonstrating his entrepreneurial nature by growing cabbages to sell. His father wanted him to be a farmer, so wasn’t too keen when his son broke the news of his determination to breed roses instead. We can’t blame him – few would have foreseen that his son would eventually farm roses on a massive scale, sell his named cultivars under license in every rose growing country in the world, and earn many awards, including an OBE for services to horticulture.
The typical, stiff, red hybrid tea rose didn’t do much for him. While he was far too polite ever to say this in public, his life’s work spoke volumes. His own roses were voluptuous and liberated, a versatile breed unlike the hybrid teas they would come to supplant, many with a tendency to dance on their stems in the wind like prima ballerinas in finely made, multi-layered tutus. Their heady scents became a horticultural byline: ‘Fragrant English Roses’.
David’s first amateur attempt at growing roses got off to a bad start. He awoke to discover that the whole tray of rose seedlings had damped off overnight. It would be the first of many setbacks. Luckily for gardeners, his nature was to try again. He already had a plan. Inspired by a local breeder of lupins, George Russell, he set out to reshape the modern rose into a lovelier form that would respect its Old Rose heritage.
Mr A observed in one of his books that the rose had a human character. He believed that each new rose released should have its own individual style – something akin to what we’d call ‘personality’ in a human being. When you look at any one subject so closely, you start to see things in a different way.
The habit of the plant was as important to him as any of the more obvious characteristics. He looked for ample, healthy foliage; decorative flower forms; petals that remain beautiful as they fade, then drop cleanly; alluring fragrances; good repeating. The flowers could be any size and have any number of petals but they all had to have that elusive character he called ‘charm’.
While some English Roses were boldly coloured, for example, Rosa ‘Lady of Shalott’ and Rosa ‘Princess Anne’, they were never brash or gaudy. He valued pure, natural colours and never sought out unlikely novelties – as a result, it’s almost impossible to clash English Roses in the garden.
If you’ve ever seen David Austin’s cut roses at a wholesale market mixed in with all the other roses, you’ll know exactly what I mean: they have a fresh, innocent look. His million pound cut rose ‘Juliet’ is the nearest we have to a rose superstar, brides and luxury floral designers proudly sharing its image on Instagram, Pinterest and Facebook. I smiled to see it on the cover of a magazine while shopping yesterday.
I could go on, but if you want to know more about what he thought about his roses, there’s no better way than to read his books or order a copy of his latest catalogue. When you do, note his language: the restrained choice of adjectives, the abundance of modifying words ‘rather lovely’, ‘almost chalice-shaped’; never wanting to over-claim, but convinced that his latest crop of new releases was the best yet.
Sometimes they were, but the odd one wasn’t. Then the rose would be dropped or relegated to the supplementary list and grown only in small numbers for heritage reasons. If demand continued, he would insist on cautionary words appearing next to the variety in the annual catalogue ‘no longer one of our best’.
Everything he did was according to firm principles, which, of course, not everyone agreed with. I used to tell myself that if a true blue rose seedling had by some miracle appeared amongst the hundreds of thousands of seedlings that germinated each year, he would not necessarily have chosen to release it. When asked about the quest for a blue rose during an interview, as he often was, he would say he wasn’t convinced that blue was a desirable shade for a rose.
He did think it appropriate for a rose to have thorns and would smile if I pointed out I’d once again been torn to bits on them. His roses didn’t like me, he would say, with a twinkle.
The way each flower was poised on the stem held a fascination for him. His shrub roses were free to commit one of the cardinal sins of the hybrid tea world dominated by demands of the show bench and the supply chain. If nodding gracefully on their stems was a natural consequence of the style of the plant and the fullness of the flower – so be it! While other breeders rogued out any cut flower seedling that had variable flowers, he embraced it, releasing the lovely cut rose, ’Keira’ with its picotee edging, every one slightly different from its sisters.
By his freedom and independence of thought, he opened up many new options for a plant that had become typecast during the 60s, 70s and early 80s. Of course, he had much in common with admirers of hybrid teas and many friends amongst them: like them, he was a rose addict.
An early barrier was raised when he was unable to persuade any companies to stock his new strain of roses. The prevailing view was that old-style roses had had their day – modern gardeners were only interested in hybrid teas. But he had faith and pressed on, selling roses direct to the public after all else failed.
Employees talked with affection about that round-the-kitchen-table business of the 1960s and early 1970s, decades before data protection became an issue, when the relatively small number of customers’ names could still be kept in a box file. It’s clear from their make do and mend stories that the company was not an overnight success.
Interest took off in May 1985 when some revolutionary new David Austin roses, including ‘Graham Thomas’, were released to great acclaim at the Chelsea Flower Show. An enthusiastic, fresh-faced BBC TV presenter, Alan Titchmarsh, himself fated to become a national gardening treasure, explained the sensation they were causing on prime time TV. The striking yellow colour of Rosa ‘Graham Thomas’ had never been seen before in old-style roses and the combination hit a sweet spot.
Mr A would later recall with a touch of mischief how a rival breeder had ruefully complained he’d spent the whole first day of the flower show directing visitors over to the David Austin Roses stand, so they could admire his wonderful new English roses.
It’s probably not accurate to say the company never looked back, but twenty years or so later, by the time I joined the company as Head of Marketing, it was a thriving international business. I found David Austin caring and kindly, though he was driven and passionate about his work, so in consequence, could be impatient. He had a legendary, but rare temper: the odd time I saw him really cross was memorable.
In my first few weeks at the nursery, I was deputed to take him the proposed cover for the updated version of his book The English Roses, sent for approval by his publisher. It did not find favour. He was just shooting the messenger, but for the first time in my life, I understood the saying ‘I wished the floor would open up beneath me’.
He calmed down as quickly as he’d exploded, and patiently took me on a private tour of his breeding greenhouses in a kind of unspoken recompense. He told me how he developed roses and what he hoped to achieve, turning up the flowers of some of his newest seedlings for me to admire, and marking the odd one that caught his attention with a colour coded stick. In writing about the man or his roses, I can never claim to be unbiased: my devotion to him was cemented that day.
He was still an attractive man in his eighties when I knew him, suntanned from his outdoor life, with a shock of white hair, a flash in his eye and a ready, often wry smile. This did not make him easy to photograph: full of nervous energy and slightly self-conscious, he rarely stopped talking if a portrait lens was pointed towards him.
As a result, we had few publicity pictures. When the BBC asked if they could have an alternative image showing him when he was younger, he searched and eventually brought one over. I teased him because his ‘alternative’ was almost identical to our ‘normal’ photo: he appeared to be wearing the same jacket and was standing in the same pose. His 30-years younger face really was the only difference. In later years, pictures often show him with a bull terrier companion at his side.
He would call me over to his house or his office to explain something he wanted doing – often it was a subtle emphasis he wanted making, rather than a task. Rarely, if he happened to pass my room when everything was quiet and he had nothing particular on his mind, he would come in and tell me anecdotes about people he had known – always subtle, entertaining and revealing. He could mimic accents, including my own, and was witty – often when you least expected it. He had a wry sense of humour and didn’t feel the need to fall in with the conventional view of something. The gardening world’s equivalent of Sir Tom Jones, there were few famous names in the recent history of British horticulture he had not at one time met.
There the comparison with Sir Tom ceases: although the private tour he gave me was far from being a one off (he must have done hundreds, perhaps thousands over the years), he did not relish being in the public eye. People travelled from all over the world to see the rose garden he’d created in Albrighton, a village between Wolverhampton and the Shropshire border in the West Midlands of England.
From time to time I saw him flustered, having briefly been held captive, alone on the car park, by a jostling crowd of excited tourists who had descended from their coach full of joy to see him, craving advice, autographs and photographs. That wasn’t easy for a reticent octogenarian, though I’m sure his gently spoken manner would have charmed them all, despite his own agitation.
He was naturally reflective: his living room was dominated by shelves of books, many on poetry, literature and gardening. An award-winning author, he had also written a book of poetry. Dyslexia made writing his books – or even a letter – a slow process, but as ever, he didn’t let difficulty deter him.
He would painstakingly re-read the UK catalogue each year and present us with a succession of heavily-tabbed copies, requesting changes to rose varieties or their descriptions, or improvements to graphical layout, photos or crops. He never tired of telling us that the catalogue was one of the most important things we did. Never completely satisfied, he would only stop working on next year’s version if he could be convinced a print deadline really was imminent.
Despite being an instinctive marketeer, he believed it was the character and virtues of the roses that had driven their success. Some idea of decorum held him back from wanting to be too much in the news locally, but he was evangelistic for his roses on a national and worldwide level. He was passionately keen to persuade people to grow the best varieties of English Roses, though this could make the company unpopular with licensees who had invested heavily in the older varieties. One of the written instructions I have from him reads, very characteristically:
‘I am not sure it is a good idea always to major on the best sellers. These may not be the best roses – they are just roses that are better known.’
He looked to the future, believing that while his newest roses were by far the best so far, some in the trial fields not scheduled for release for eight or nine years would be even better. He often expressed a real, poignant sadness that common mortality dictated he would not live to see all the promising rose seedlings he was working on through to their release. It seemed he would have been content to breed roses forever.
When we told him that Rosa ‘Graham Thomas’ had been voted The World’s Favourite Rose by 150 Rose Societies Worldwide, he raised his eyebrow. It was very nice of them, and he was grateful, but he had already moved on.
Prestigious garden writers, broadcasters and journalists came to the nursery each year, attracted by the chance to interview David Austin. Setting aside his shyness, his health was not always good. He much preferred the roses to be the ones in the spotlight and regretted any time and energy diverted from his breeding programme. I learned not to guarantee his presence and to have a backup plan. Luckily, he tended to get curious when visitors came and often drifted in later as if despite himself, probably concluding he could explain what he was looking for in a rose better than anyone else.
One time I remember having to confiscate the trouser pocket change he couldn’t resist nervously jingling during an interview for Australian TV, try as he might. It was amazing how much noise had been made by so little money. It had not, in retrospect, been a great choice of day – the sound man was also being harassed by the shrieks of courting peacocks and the roar of planes taking off from our neighbour, RAF Cosford, after their annual open day.
Occasionally publications sent us reporters who explained on arrival, almost as a badge of pride, that they did not know a rose from a daffodil. It was not always easy to explain the principles behind his breeding programme to non-gardening journalists. Even the best interviewers quite naturally asked many of the same questions. He would answer thoughtfully but, like many well-seasoned interviewees, he kept his story simple – a knack people acquire when they’ve been misquoted a time or two.
He didn’t enjoy being asked to name his favourite rose, which he invariably was. Privately he often mentioned the less commercial roses, such as some of the English Alba Roses that he felt were underrated. Perhaps optimistically, he believed these would be appreciated more in the future.
For some reason I never fully understood, he came to actively dislike the odd rose he’d bred in the past – Rosa ‘Charles Austin’ comes to mind as it caused us a few problems. This variety was popular in Germany, seemed to grow reasonably well and was often featured in publications. I found myself in the unusual position of being called on to advise how to prevent journalists from writing glowing articles on a product.
He was a natural advocate, and could sometimes be stung by criticism, even when it was not directed specifically at him. I remember him spending some time composing a lengthy, unsolicited letter to the RHS in rebuttal of an article by a contributor to their magazine, The Garden. The writer criticised the amount of new plants being released by breeders and was not complimentary about annual gardening catalogues. David Austin wanted the chance to present an alternative viewpoint and was disappointed when only the briefest of extracts was published on their letters page.
While he would happily advocate for his roses, he didn’t believe in molly-coddling them. In his award-winning public garden, the roses were cut to a shrub shape with hedge trimmers then neatened with secateurs. Once he and I listened to David Jnr and Michael Marriott, the nursery’s travelling rosarian, technical expert and spokesperson, discussing the technically ‘correct’ way to prune a rose. After a pause, Mr A reflected, “Pruning has always been a bit of a mystery to me”. He didn’t see himself as a great gardener, though he had a beautiful private garden and was always interested in ways of displaying roses to their best effect.
Despite an almost chivalrous determination to do right by his chosen flower, he could never be drawn into getting soppy about roses. He would gruffly say he didn’t ‘do romance’ – usually in response to a particularly gushing line of questioning. Watching from the sidelines, although he might not have ‘done’ romance, he did just fine when it came to love.
While David Austin had great support from his family and his employees, he sadly missed his artistic and sociable wife, Pat, a sculptress, who died in 2008 after over 50 years of marriage. He loved his family dearly and took great pride in them.
It was no secret that he would have controlled almost everything connected to the company if he could, but as the company continued to grow and thrive, it was evident he could not. He had a loyal and talented team around him, led by his son, David Austin Jnr: I’ve never known a nicer, more caring group of people. David Jnr is as interested in roses as his father could have hoped for – and a passionate, instinctive, visionary businessman and gardener to boot. (I also have to honour Christabel (Tink) Timmins, a long time employee and the sweetest natured of all, who tragically died earlier this year.)
Mr A made it his duty to guide us. I doubt there was a worker (there was certainly not a manager) anywhere in the business who had never had his or her plans thrown into sudden disarray by his intervention – as a result his workers were resourceful, able to take the unexpected in their stride and improvise.
He suffered later on in life from not having the health and energy to do everything he would have liked. Long, cold winters are not easy when you’re getting older and especially so when so much of your life revolves around rose breeding. I would sense his mood lifting as the roses’ foliage started to emerge again in Spring – or perhaps it was when the year’s batch of rose seedlings began to sprout and the rhythms of life in the breeding department resumed.
He lived with heavy demands, given his age, especially in summer, when the roses and seedlings were at their peak of flower. There were so many opportunities for him, social and professional. He seemed ambivalent about fame and the trappings of success – partly it was welcome as it gave him the chance to meet interesting people or visit gardens – other parts, he didn’t value.
He had an abstract love of England and admired the royal family. He named a particularly magnificent rose for Princess Alexandra of Kent, whom he’d met several times. His cut rose ‘Darcey’ decorated the Queen’s barge for the Thames Diamond Jubilee Pageant. I believe Prince Charles presented him with his OBE and that they exchanged an oblique quip about family succession, Mr A never being one to step down himself. I should perhaps have explained before now that Mr A was his workers’ name for him: it combined respect with affection and left the name ‘David’ free for his son.
Wealth for its own sake didn’t seem to interest him: I got the impression he’d managed without and could do so again if needed. Company lore tells that in the early years, when the nursery was quiet, some workers were looking for jobs to do having pretty much re-painted every surface they could find. They decided they’d give Mr A’s car ‘a good clean, inside and out’. They discovered the glove box was stuffed full of his unopened wage packets, still with the money in them. I can’t swear that story was true, but it seemed likely.
Staff and family valued their traditions surrounding two important events in the calendar that brought them closer together: the RHS Chelsea Flower Show and Christmas. The company Christmas party was virtually compulsory. They enjoyed fancy dress themed parties and would hold lengthy raffles in aid of the local air ambulance.
Workers who’d been around in the early days would reminisce about sitting on straw bales for the parties. Mr A would lead the way, carrying the turkey, with Mrs A pushing a wheelbarrow of presents: Yardley or Old Spice gift sets. In those days, the workers all brought food too in a kind of pot luck.
The many Chelsea Flower Show routines and traditions dated back almost as far. After long days working to create the flower display, the family and staff would meet to enjoy a meal in their favourite wine bar.
Laughter would flow round the table as they teased each other about funny occurrences, accidents and near misses. They’d talk about the challenges of forcing new varieties of roses – still young plants and with limited stock – to flower about two months earlier than the natural season and anxiously ask themselves if they’d managed to pull everything off. As critical as any RHS judge, they’d compare the stand against previous years, hoping and praying to add to their impressive tally of Chelsea Gold medals.
David Austin Snr will be sadly missed, but it’s good to know his work will live on, ably guided by his son David, his grandson, Richard and their team of workers, growers and distributors around the world.
Mr A has left gardeners a wonderful inheritance. At a turning point in gardening’s long history, he alone seemed to understand what people wanted in a rose, and he put all his ingenuity into realising it. Without him, roses would be very different today: his work not only changed the fashion but kick-started the re-emergence of shrub roses.
He lived a long, full, remarkable life. He loved and was loved in return. He inspired people, gave happiness to many and made our gardens more beautiful. He showed us that shifting the world to a new trajectory is possible, if we care enough.
I admired him immensely and believe he had something of the genius about him. Above all, he was very human – an easy person to love, and I loved him dearly.
This is the first time I’ve been moved to publish anything approaching an obituary and I should make it clear that these memories of him are just my personal impressions and fallible memories – how far do we ever penetrate into the truth of anyone?
David C. H. Austin OBE was born February 16th 1926, and died peacefully with his family with him on December 18th 2018.