Members may have been fortunate enough to visit the exhibition on the life and work of Reginald Farrer held at the Peter Scott Gallery, Lancaster University, in the summer of 1991. Reginald Farrer was indeed a complex, talented and many-sided man, and the exhibition paid a fascinating and timely tribute to him. A commemorative volume of multidisciplinary essays on various aspects of Farrer's life entitled 'Reginald Farrer: Dalesman, Planthunter, Gardener', written to accompany the exhibition is, however, still available. The following article is a distillation and, partly, a review of this wide-ranging and well-produced book.
When, in 1920, Farrer died alone, probably of diphtheria, in the mountains of Upper Burma at the early age of 40, he had established a colourful reputation as a rock-garden enthusiast, field botanist, writer, traveller, artist, plant collector and horticultural entrepreneur. He grew up on the Farrer family estate in Clapham, and his solitary childhood, during which he spent many hours roaming the Ingleborough fells - he was educated at home because of numerous operations on a cleft palate -developed in him a passionate and lifelong enthusiasm for high places and the mountain plants which grow in them. During this time he identified several rare alpine species, and redesigned the rock garden at his family home, Ingleborough Hall.
After leaving Oxford, where he helped to make the rock garden at St John's, Farrer embarked, in 1902, on the first of his expeditions to Eastern Asia, visiting China, Korea and, particularly, Japan. There, influenced by Japanese gardening tastes and traditions, he developed his characteristically strong views on rock garden design, where naturalism superseded formal artificiality, and where alpine plants were to grow in surroundings which, though ordered by man, copied as far as possible their original habitats.
Farrer's travels resulted in 'The Garden of Asia', published in 1904. This launched a career as a prolific author of novels and of books on rock garden plants and their collection, though it is probably fair to say that his contribution to literature lies rather more in the area of botanical and travel writing than in the world of fiction. Farrer's 'The English Rock Garden', an encyclopaedic work written in 1913 but published after the Great War in 1919, is written, like all his books, in a vivid, exuberant and highly personal style.
Farrer travelled widely in the mountains of Italy, France and Switzerland, walking and climbing with gardener friends. He also visited Ceylon in 1907, becoming a Buddhist at about this time. Yet, together with a fascination for finding new species of alpines, he was also attracted by the horticultural possibilities of the introduction of new hardy rock plants to the British gardening public. With this in mind, he founded the Craven Nursery in Clapham, which specialised in Asian alpines, an enterprise which unfortunately foundered in the economic decline of the 1920's.
In 1914 Farrer and a companion, the Kew-trained W. Purdom, set out on an ambitious expedition to the Kansu province of North-west China, which had already proved to be a fruitful area for botanical explorers. He found there numerous hardy specimens which today enrich British gardens. Many bear his name, though the list would have been longer if Farrer had not sometimes neglected to collect, as well as plants and seeds, the herbarium specimens necessary for classification and naming. Viburnum farreri, Buddleja alternifolia, Gentiana farreri, Geranium farreri, Allium farreri, Clematis macropetala, Daphne tangutica and Meconopsis quintuplinervia are just a few examples. These two years of exploring and plant collecting are described in Farrer's 'On the Eaves of the World' (2 vols), published in 1917, and in the posthumous 'The Rainbow Bridge*.
Farrer's plant illustrations reveal another facet of his talented personality. These, and his landscape water-colours of Kansu and Tibet, proved a revelation when they were exhibited by the Fine Art Society in 1918. The plant illustrations, often painted in the most uncomfortable of circumstances, record, not an exact botanical resemblance, but Farrer's emotional reaction to the plant and its habitat. His diary conveys the practical difficulties which he faced, and provides a glimpse of his ebullient use of language: "June 2nd, 1919 ... I sat down to paint it (the most marvellous and impressive Rhododendron I've ever seen - a gigantic, excellent, with corrugated leaves and great white trumpets stained with yellow inside - a thing alone, by itself WELL worth all the journey up here and everything. And oddly enough I did not enjoy doing so at first... a first false start - a second, better, splashed and spoilt, then a mizzle, so that umbrella had to be screamed for and held up with one hand while I worked with the other. Then flies and torment and finally a wild dust storm with rain and thunder came raging over so that everything had feverishly to be hauled indoors and the Rhododendron fell over and all the lights and lines etc. were of course quite out of gear. However, I'd done as much as I could for the day by 5.30 but even then was so excited that I continued strolling in glorious meditation till dark and dinner. But one moral is - only paint when fresh or before the day's toils; as it is I must trench on tomorrow which ought to be wholly a rush of letters and articles for the next day's data that I mean to send off. June 3rd, 1919. The rhododendron gave me such a bad night... I set to however and satisfactorily finished it though it took till after 12."
Farrer's illustrations, together with the field notes, botanical specimens and seeds which he collected, provided valuable information to the Royal Botanic Garden in Edinburgh, where the Regius Keeper, Sir Isaac Bayley Balfour, took a special interest in Sino-Himalayan plants. Farrer's interest in sending back attractive new plants with horticultural potential, however, was sometimes at odds with Balfour's desire for a comprehensive inventory of all the plants of the region. Farrer's collecting trips are particularly interesting when viewed in the context of the global plant exchanges which occurred during British Imperial rule. During this time crops and other plants were transplanted from then-native habitats to others throughout the Empire for a variety of economic, medical and scientific reasons. At a domestic level, too, whilst Farrer and other plant collectors introduced new species to British gardens, sentimental colonists took with them plants, and animals, which reminded them of home.
Farrer's final, ill-fated, voyage was to the mountains of Upper Burma, taking as his companion E.H.M Cox, who recorded the trip in 'Farrer's Last Journey, Upper Burma 1919-20', published in 1926. This expedition proved less horticulturally successful than Farrer's earlier trip to Kansu, largely because the climate of the Burma mountains had less in common with British conditions than that of Kansu. Nevertheless, before his solitary death in the remote Minshan mountains, he had found and recorded many new species, including Picea farreri, Berberis coxii, Cotoneaster franchetti var. sternianus, and several rhododendrons - Rhododendron arizelum, R. basilicum, R. sperabile, R. mallotum, R. trichocladum, R. caloxanthum, R. glischrum and R. heliolepis. Farrer's legacy of plants cultivated from seed collected by him is described in Cox's 'The Plant Introductions of Reginald Farrer', published in 1930.
Farrer's rich contribution to the worlds of botany and rock gardening can be seen today in gardens throughout Britain. Moreover, several hardy plants and shrubs which he introduced from China and Burma can still be found in and around Clapham. Many varieties of rhododendron, as well as Lonicera syringantha and Rodgersia aesculifolia, grow near the lake. The Himalayan woodland glade which Farrer created nearby still exists, whilst in Clapham village itself Viburnum farreri and Potentilla fruticosa flourish.
Meanwhile the indigenous plants which Farrer found on the slopes and in the meadows around Ingleborough can still be seen by those who, like him, "find joy in high places". Purple and yellow saxifrages, roseroot, dog's mercury, primrose, meadowsweet, melancholy thistle, marsh hawksbeard, thyme, rock rose, bird's foot trefoil, butterwort, lesser clubmoss, grass of Parnassus, cranesbill, great burnet, sorrel, lady's mantles, rough hawkbit... the list is long and varied.
Many, sadly, are threatened by man-made interventions. As an early ecologist, Farrer saw individual plants in the wider context of the climate and geology which shaped their habitat, and in association with the other species which shared their setting. Perhaps we should follow his example, enjoying and understanding our natural inheritance, and ensuring its survival for future generations.
The writer is extremely grateful to Dr and Mrs John Farrer for reading this article, and for their permission to quote from the diary of Reginald Farrer, which is part of the private family archive. She is also grateful for their permission to use the accompanying photograph, taken by Mary Farnell, of one of Reginald Farrer's illustrations. She would like to thank John Ulingworth, too, most warmly, for his advice and co-operation.
'Reginald Farrer; Dalesman, Planthunter and Gardener', edited by John Illingworth and Jane Routh, was published in 1991 by the Centre for North-west Regional Studies, University of Lancaster, and costs £4.95.
Water colour Rhododendron McKenzianum by Reginald Farrar (photo by Mary Farnell).