Ursula Buchan on E. A. Bowles, Slightly Foxed Issue 33

Much More than a Perfect Gent

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I cannot think of many garden writers from a century ago in whose company I would have felt entirely comfortable. William Robinson would have ignored me, Gertrude Jekyll seen through me, and Reginald Farrer unnerved me. But I should dearly have loved to meet Edward Augustus (‘Gussie’) Bowles, and have him conduct me around his garden one sunny day in spring. For by all accounts he was a sweet-tempered and charming, funny and self-deprecating, discerning and cultured man. He spent his entire life at Myddelton House in Bulls Cross, near Enfield, and, around the beginning of the First World War, wrote what amounted to a gardening autobiography, the trilogy My Garden in Spring, My Garden in Summer and My Garden in Autumn and Winter (1914–15). Of these, the first volume is the best.

Bowles’s ancestors, who were Huguenots, had lived at Myddelton House since 1724, and the family owned a majority share in the New River Company, whose eponymous stream flowed through the garden and on to water London. The spacious house (now owned by the Lee Valley Regional Park Authority) is of white Suffolk brick, and was built by Bowles’s grandfather in 1818 (he pulled down an Elizabethan red-brick house to do it).

Gussie lost most of the use of his right eye as a result of an infection when he was 8, a fact which prevented his being sent to Harrow, like his brothers. Instead, he was taught the classics by a local clergyman, and he developed a keen interest in natural history while ranging around the garden at home. He went up to Cambridge to read Theology and would have taken Holy Orders had the deaths of a brother and sister from tuberculosis not intervened. He abandoned ordination in order to look after his parents, and became a lay reader and churchwarden instead.

Bowles’s parents were full of Christian charity, doing good works among the poor of Enfield, and their children inherited these philanthropic tendencies. Gussie founded a night sc

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About the contributor

Ursula Buchan is a gardening writer who has recently given up the hurly-burly of journalism for the deep, deep peace of book writing.

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