Sir Peter Smithers [1913-2006] was an intelligence officer, a Tory politician, diplomat and above all a great gardener.
“I regard gardening and planting as the other half of life, a counterpoint to the rough and tumble of politics,” he wrote.
During his lifetime he laid out several gardens, notably Colebrook House in Winchester in the 1950s and 60s, and then from 1970 onwards Vico Morcote in Switzerland. He was also responsible for much of the tree planting in the cathedral close at Winchester. Photography was another lifelong passion and after his retirement he became an extremely successful as, in his own words, “a floral pornographer”.
All the quotes come from his memoirs unless otherwise credited. So read on more to find out more about this unsung, generous and outstanding horticulturist.
Smithers was born at Donisthorpe House in Yorkshire in 1913 and owed much of his upbringing to his nanny, who taught him to love plants and gardens. When he went to boarding school aged 9 he was given a small plot to tend. He noted “it was April when I joined the school: just the time to plant some bedding plants and to sow some annuals on the thin chalky soil.” The school had a walled garden which contained a rifle range and also a shrub”about 5 ft high with large blooms, each petal with a brown blotch at the base, and an entrancing aroma to the sticky leaves.
Amongst the lobelia, marigolds and petunias it was a being from a different and much better world. Its memory is a pleasure to this day. How Cistus ladanifer had penetrated the school precincts with their forbidding red brick and dark green paint I cannot imagine.”
He also befriended his parents’ gardeners. “Old Lonsdale, a very broad Yorkshireman in a peaked cap and green apron.. was a master grower of potted plants for the hosue…each plant seemed to have the shining pristine perfection of a new motor car.” As Smithers grew older he says he would entertain Lonsdale with an account of what he read in a gardening book,” if only to hear the inevitable response” Ee, Master peter, I doant maak nowt o’bewks” but he knew more about how to grow plants than many a modern garden writer.”
After prep school it was Harrow from where At the age of 13, he persuaded the Royal Horticultural Society to let him attend the Chelsea Flower Show, the first child to do so. He also bought a large ledger in which to record his plant acquisitions – this lasted virtually all his life, until when filled up in 1993 he had added 32,147 entries. Whilst at Harrow he “fell for lilies in a big way” because they “win your love with their beauty and grace and a certain indefinable allure” although he concluded that ” then they break your heart in the end…It is a very old story.”
In 1931 he won an open scholarship to Magdalen College Oxford and getting a first in history in 1934. But his interest in plants continued to grow especially as directly opposite Magdalen was the Oxford Botanic Gardens. As he himself said: “Magdalen had no central-heating … [so] the tropical house, with a splendid plant of Victoria amazonica had great allure.”
He was called to the bar in 1936 and A typical elite career path should have followed. But this was wartime and he ended up in the intelligence services working in France, for Ian Fleming, creator of James Bond. Later he worked in naval intelligence in Washington, before being sent to monitor German U-boat communications in Mexico and Central America. Noting in his memoirs that this “would oblige me to pass through some of the world’s richest flora” he was warned by his boss to remember he was a naval attaché not a botanical attaché. This did not stop him making a garden and beginning a large orchid collection!
Smithers was demobilized in 1946 with the rank of lieutenant-commander, and got back to studying for his Ph.D which he was finally awarded in 1953 after 14 interrupted years of study for a thesis on Joseph Addison, the 18th-century English essayist and gardener. [sadly not easily obtainable]. He won a seat on the local council and from there, in 1950, was elected Tory MP for the safe seat of Winchester.
After his father died his mother moved to Colebrook House, in the shadow of Winchester Cathedral. Originally two houses, it had once been the cathedral choir school. Probably mediaeval in origin but much altered, with a Tudor Great Hall and now largely late 17th/early 18thc it sat on half an acre of garden, and on the direct axis of the cathedral itself.
She died in 1950 and Smithers and his wife moved into Colebrook House and set about its restoration. He also discovered that three streams ran through the grounds, although partly subterranean, and decided to uncover them and incorporate them into his design for the garden. But his greatest triumph was the creation of a water garden around the previously hidden stream that flowed underneath the cathedral close. A row of four tiny Victorian terraced houses between Colebrook House and the Cathedral [just visible in the print] were condemned as unfit for habitation and came up for sale.
He bought and then demolished them and, with the help of the cathedral’s architect, Wilfred Carpenter-Turner, developed the site with a water garden. He later told Barbara Hall of the Hampshire Gardens Trust the story of how the design and planting came about. Carpenter-Turner designed the wrought iron railing and found the two stone finials in a builder’s yard.
He planted cypress trees arguing that a monk might well have brought the seed back from Rome!
The tiny stream which runs through the site then goes on through the gardens of Colebrook House, descending a “water staircase” of four steps – which he described as “best Birds Public Baths in Winchester”. But the real success was that he opened a walkway through the site for the public and was immensely satisfied by the constant stream of people stopping to admire the view.
Living cheek by jowl with the cathedral – he had a doorway in his garden wall which gave direct access to the cathedral close he took a great interest in the planting there. The condition of the trees “distressed” him and he reckoned it must have been two centuries since any trees had been planted. He spoke to the Dean who responded by asking him to organize its replanting: “I’m sure the chapter will be delighted and will give you a free hand” So that was that! His approach was very sympathetic, as he tried to visualise what they would look like in a century or so’s time but it remained “a very difficult operation..[because] a mediaeval building, unlike a classical one does not dictate the formal lines of planting with which it should be surrounded.
He chose native forest trees for the planting around the cathedral itself, but elsewhere since many of the surrounding buildings were 17thc he referred to Bishop Henry Compton’s list of trees planted at Fulham Palace to select appropriately.
The garden at Colebrook House lay in the shadow of the giant plane trees in the palace grounds, and was low-lying, at the same level as the nearby water meadows. Indeed he could fish from his kitchen window.
Of course like all gardeners he wanted to grow what wasn’t suitable for his conditions. His particular passion at that moment were tree peonies – the moutan – that had beguiled English gardeners since they were first seen on Chinese wallpaper in the 18thc.
Unfortunately he learned quickly that the deep damp soil of his garden was no place for them writing “the truth is tree peonies do not really like the English climate, a view apparently shared by some other misguided foreigners… they prefer a sharp relatively dry winter and a hot summer.” So “the plants let me know that life was difficult for them: they were not happy, and neither was I.” However as you will see, they reappear in his other gardens later.
Despite this Colebrook’s garden always had something of interest and not only in open ground, as he built an orchid house, specialising in Dendrobiums, and also grew over 2000 kinds of cactus.
His political career was developing apace, alongside his garden. A spell as a junior Foreign Office minister in the early 1960s led to Ted Heath putting his name forward to be secretary-general of the Council of Europe and in 1964 he became the first Briton to hold the post and surprise surprise took his cacti with him to Strasbourg. Almost the first thing he planted in his new garden were tree peonies.
In 1969 his 5 year mandate was not renewed and he was in two minds as to what to do next. But as is so often the case it’s not what you know but who that decided for him. One of his connections from the Council of Europe was the Swiss Foreign Minister who told him he would be a very welcome immigrant to Switzerland. So he retired from politics, and accepted a knighthood and a Senior Research Fellowship from the United Nations, sold Colebrook House and moved to Switzerland to begin a new life gardening full time, and beginning what he dubbed his “floral pornography.”
He had found an acre of steep abandoned vineyard in Vico Morcote in the Italian-speaking Ticino canton on the Swiss side of Lake Lugano. He & his wife commissioned a new house inpired by Japanese design and without any steps in or out, so that as they grew older they could still live there even if wheelchair-bound. The first part of the house to be built was the greenhouse which was attached to his study so he visit it in his pyjamas if he wished!
At Vico Morcote he laid out his grounds with exotic plants suited to the climate and soil that would mature into an self-maintaining ecosystem arguing that “the garden work must diminish as the owner grows older.” It was based around the simple to articulate [but difficult to enact] principle that it would be ” a source of pleasure to the owner and his friends, not a burden and an anxiety,” and should not require more than two days of garden work each week.
Once again one of the first things he planted were tree peonies – potting up and moving the very ones he had planted first from Strasbourg, and then he began a hybridization programme, based on importing Japanese tree peonies previously unknown in Europe. Many entered commercial cultivation. He also became involved in schemes to conserve them in the wild, and co-authored a book about them.
But his taste in plants was wide. He bought Lionel Rothschild’s collection of Nerines from Exbury, when it was being dispersed in 1974, using it as the basis for another successful breeding programme. The collection has now gone back to Exbury where it is being continued by Lionel’s grandson Nicholas de Rothschild.
Vico Morcote eventually contained some 10,000 species and varieties, including world-class collections of magnolias [which formed the backbone of the planting], lilies, and wisteria.
As the garden evolved and matured it grew shadier and his beloved tree peonies gradually died out. However he was philosophical: it was “part of the price to be paid …[in the garden’s] evolution many genera have had their day of triumph before assuming a relatively smaller part of the mature system.” Unfortunately as far as I can see the garden is not open to the public, and nor sadly are there many images of it easily available.
Smithers other great indulgence was photography. He bought his first camera in 1932 and was hooked. It wasn’t until 1978 when, by chance, a professional photographer suggested his work was “art” and convinced him to enter a few for an RHS exhibition. To his surprise he won a gold medal and was hooked again. Over the following 3 decades until his death the RHS awarded him eight gold medals for his voluptuous photographs of plants and he had 23 one-man shows all over the world. This delighted him no end, and he elaborated in a 1987 interview with the New York Times : “This is Playboy in flowers,” he said. “What are flowers but sex in action? The bee performs the wedding. I take the pictures on the wedding day. Two days later, the flowers are exhausted.”
Sir Peter Smithers died in June 2006, at Vico Morcote, but years before then he had began giving away his plants. He said he believed that the pleasure of owning a fine plant was not complete until it had been given to a friend.
His memoirs, Adventures of a Gardener, (1995), were published by the RHS and are now a classic of gardening history, full of his own photographs,shrewd advice and charming anecdotes.