Remembering Roger Phillips

Wild Flowers of Britain (Pan Books 1977)

Roger Phillips MBE 1932 – 2021

Last November saw the death of artist, photographer and horticultural writer Roger Phillips.  Well known as an author of over thirty books about plants and gardens, published over a long period beginning in the late 1970s, many were collaborations with botanist and horticultural expert Martyn Rix, or his partner, Nicky Foy.

Looking through our collection of gardening books at home, I see we have acquired at least ten of these over the years.  Their accessible style, concise descriptions of plants and abundance of colour photographs enabling readers to identify plants with confidence, made them deservedly popular.  They’re still invaluable guides, including those new to horticulture, the audience for whom they were originally produced.

Phillips’ first book, Wild Flowers of Britain, was published by Pan Books in 1977.  Living in London in the 1970s Phillips felt that his son was missing out on the experience of the countryside, and began taking him on regular weekend trips out of the city.  Becoming curious about wild plants growing in the fields and hedgerows, Phillips found it was not always straightforward to identify these from books containing botanical illustrations.  He was persuaded that colour photography would make this process easier for the beginner, and as he explains in the introduction, Wild Flowers of Britain was his attempt to ‘make the book I needed seven years ago’.

Illustrated with Phillips’ now iconic still life photographs of specimens arranged on a white background, each plant was profiled with its common and Latin name, and a brief description of its characteristics and distribution.  Another aid to identification was the arrangement of plants in chronological flowering order, so the reader could see month by month which plants were likely to be in flower.

An immediate success on publication, Wild Flowers of Britain established a winning format for a series of similar thematic surveys including (amongst many others) Trees of Britain, Europe and North America, Shrubs, Perennials, Bulbs, and Mushrooms, often co-written with Martyn Rix.  As the series developed, photographs of plants growing in their natural habitats were introduced, alongside Phillips’ still life images, assisting our understanding of how plants have travelled from all over the world to find new homes in our gardens.

Poplars, Elm, Hazel, Alder, Willow from Wild Flowers of Britain (1977) Photograph by Roger Phillips

Trees in Britain, Europe and North America (Pan Book 1978)

Bulbs (Pan Books 1989 – first published in 1981)

Shrubs (Pan Books 1994)

Perennials Volume 1 Early Perennials (Pan Books 1993)

Herbs (Pan Books 1992)

Annuals and Biennials (Macmillan 1999)

The Quest for the Rose (BBC Books 1993)

Roses were a special interest for both Phillips and Rix and The Quest for the Rose, both a book and a TV series, (BBC Books 1993) was a monumental project , uncovering the origins of garden roses.

The account of their journey to China, written in diary form, is especially vivid, as they search for wild rose species and cultivars first imported to Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries.  These roses were hugely significant in the development of repeat flowering roses, such as hybrid teas.  We share their excitement as they encounter these important roses, still growing by roadsides, in public parks and in the gardens of Chinese farmers.  On finding the Tea-scented Rose, Rosa gigantea growing in a ditch close to the Burma Road in Kunming, Phillips records, ‘we all fell out over whether the scent actually was in any way reminiscent of tea.’

This section could almost be a book in itself – as could the pithy biographical profiles of important rose breeders which appear throughout the text.

The Ultimate Guide to Roses (Macmillan 2004)

A Photographic Garden History (Macmillan 1995)

A Photographic Garden History (Macmillan 1995) was written over a number of years with Phillips’ partner Nicky Foy.  Divided into three sections, it covers European, Chinese and Japanese garden styles through the ages.  As its title suggests, much space is devoted to photographs of the various gardens, and these are recorded in the same pragmatic way as Phillips recorded plants; without flattery and showing them as the average visitor might see them.

Phillips was also expert at distilling the spirit of each garden in his succinct descriptions.  At Versailles, he relates an account of ‘how flowers were bedded out even on freezing winter days so that Louis could proudly show his treasure to guests and any flowers that drooped in the icy conditions were changed during dinner so that the display remained immaculate.’  The wealth and power of French royalty in the 18th century, and the absurdity of its extravagance, are perfectly captured in this small detail.

Roger Phillips was born in Uxbridge, west London and studied painting at Chelsea School of Art before becoming a trainee art director at the advertising agency Ogilvy & Mather.  He turned freelance in the late sixties.  Alongside his writing career, Phillips was also a practical gardener, establishing collections of ceanothus, camellias and climbing roses at Eccleston Square, in London, where he was Honorary Garden Manager.

Phillips saw himself as a pioneer of using colour photography ‘as a reliable means of identifying plants’.  His use of colour was pragmatic and practical, and also egalitarian – by using the visual language of popular culture, and commerce, he aligned himself with the public and found a connection with them.  Some of his still life plant portraits from Wild Flowers of Britain are preserved in the V&A’s photography collection.

Always generous with his encyclopedic plant knowledge, Phillips’ enthusiasm for his subject is infectious, as is his passion for educating others and inviting the reader to accompany him on his personal voyage of discovery.  The popularity of his books means they are still readily available and well worth searching out.

Further reading:

Eccleston Square Gardens here

The Guardian Obituary Roger Phillips here

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