Although I hardly knew my paternal grandfather, as one who is interested in most horticultural matters, I am very proud of him.
Educated at St. John’s college, Cambridge with a brother who became Dean of Salisbury, he chose to live as a horticultural country vicar. There were quite a few in his time. He was the parson at Schole, Norfolk (around 1875), Halstead, Kent, and finally, until 1927 when he died, at Strathfieldsaye, in Hampshire.
Although his brother was more famous than he was in their day, except for the stained glass window in Salisbury Cathedral and some books on religion, it is the Reverend F. Page-Robert’s name that lives on.
I knew grandfather’s gardener, Arthur Keep, and stayed with this lovely old boy, who smelled of smoky beehives, in his retirement cottage when I was painting landscape in the vicinity during the early 1950s.
With the advent of the motor car, Keep (as he was called in those stratified days), was offered the post of gardener/chauffeur. But when given the car to handle, he took it to the end of the drive and got out, saying that such a new-fangled contraption was not for him – gardening was.
When I stayed with his daughter, Doris, also when painting, she told me that one of her jobs as a small girl, at the end of the 19th century, was to follow the Reverend as he budded briar roses. These he had paid his parishioners to recover for him from the hedgerows thereabouts.
He would bud a thousand to two thousand a year, with Doris Keep following behind to tie in the buds with sticky string.
The Reverend was, indeed, a rose specialist, becoming President of the National Rose Society (now Royal) and Dean Hole Memorial Medallist.
Doris told me of when grandfather was walking with a friend in the country, they came across a body lying in a ditch. The Reverend was for walking past, when his companion suggested that they stop, which they did. Grandfather poked the parishioner with his stick, saying with a laugh: “you see, drunk again”, and on they went.
His name lives on in several ways. Cant’s, of Colchester, named a handsome yellow-flushed-with-red rose after him, which was very popular at the time, and was used for hybridising in Israel. It still exists, though hard to find.
His stately, bearded figure was much illustrated in rose books, which he often edited, in magazines like Gardeners’ Magazine (1898), where he is pictured in his rose garden with my father as a child, and in The English Flower Garden (1901 edition), standing, flat-capped, beneath towering Eremurus robustus flowers. In writing on this plant with authority, he must have been quite knowledgeable about it.
And what should pop up in Which? Gardening’s September 2008 issue but a picture of Sidalcea “Reverend Page Roberts” – again, I suppose, available. So he must have had some strong connection with that flower.
He was already dead when, in 1935, the Duchess of Marlborough sued the writer of an article in an American magazine, called Hooey, for a “foul libel”. It was suggested in this piece that the Rev. H. Robertson Page and the Duchess of Marlborough share the same bed. The Reverend F. Page Roberts and the Duchess of Marlborough were, at that time, both well-known and popular roses.
McGill, that great saucy-seaside-postcard artist, cashed in on this national joke, using the Reverend Page Roberts’s name (he being deceased) and, for fear of being involved in another libel case by raising the Duchess’s ire, changing her name to “Queenie Robinson”. How grandfather would have loved all that.
Why the discrepancies in the seemingly arbitrary use of the hyphen in our name? It seems that grandfather’s brother, the Dean, who married a titled lady in the latter part of the 19th century, paid to have the hyphen added between the surname and the last Christian name given to all members of his family. With it he added a coat of arms, crest and motto. But grandfather initially declined to use it, thinking it to be too ostentatious, but later he seems to have done so. I have chosen to include it in my correspondence and books, but not on my paintings. It is a sort of compromise that both churchmen might have approved of – clergymen’s compromise, perhaps?