Britt Willoughby

Interview: Rosie Atkins, recipient of an RHS Elizabeth Medal of Honour (EMH)

On Tuesday 26 March 2024, Rosie Atkins received an RHS Elizabeth Medal of Honour (EMH), in recognition of her contribution to horticulture. Rosie talks about her career and what receiving the EMH means to her.

Written by:

Hattie Ghaui

Published on:

March 26, 2024


On Tuesday 26 March 2024, Rosie Atkins received an RHS Elizabeth Medal of Honour (EMH), in recognition of her contribution to horticulture. Rosie talks about her career and what receiving the EMH means to her.

What piqued your interest in gardens and gardening?

Some of my earliest memories are of swinging on the garden gate, talking to passers-by, outside our flat in Richmond. Our neighbour, Vernon Ward, was famous for painting flowers which  adorned every box of chocolates in the 50s. He would toss still fresh flowers out of his window when his work was done and  I would gather them up and give them to my mother. My gardening horizons widened when my father – a young lawyer before joining the Navy at the start of the war, decided to become a hotelier when hostilities ended. 

We moved to The Manor Hotel in Godalming, which came with a gardener called Adam, who was more fun than keeping an eye on my baby sister.  From there we moved to Georgian coaching inn in Kent which had two, two-acre, walled gardens, run by the wonderful Jim Waterhouse. I became his shadow, or as he liked to say, his ‘goffer’. We had a very special friendship even though my father demoted Jim to the flower garden in order to take on a younger vegetable gardener. I was fascinated by these two experienced gardeners who had such different ideas of how to get the best results.  I soon realised gardening wasn’t an exact science, confirmed by listening to BBC Gardeners Question Time.

You are first and foremost a journalist - tell us about your first jobs and how they led you to gardening.

I had wanted to pursue my love of painting and went to art college after leaving school, but unfortunately my talent didn’t match my enthusiasm, and my indomitable Scottish mother enrolled me on a secretarial course. While I had no ambition to be a secretary, it did lead to my first job in the now-defunct News of the World.  It was my job to send out readers’ offers but when the grapefruit knives were returned because they were bent I realised I needed to move on.  In 1968, I landed a job in the foreign department of the Sunday Times, under the editorship of the brave and inspirational Harry Evans. My immediate boss had recently taken over from Ian Fleming, of James Bond fame, who had left to concentrate on writing books.  It was a time of global turbulence; Russia and their allies had invaded Czechoslovakia, Arab and Israeli troops were fighting and there were protests in most major cities against the war in Vietnam. They were exciting times, and I had immense admiration for the brave war reporters and photographers who never gave up on a story.

From the foreign desk to join a small team of sleuths on Atticus, the Sunday Times diary (or gossip) column and I got to meet some of the good, and not so good, such as the notorious soviet spy Anthony Blunt, curator of the Royal pictures.  I found I had a natural aptitude for asking questions born from an insatiable curiosity.   

What gave you the idea for Gardens Illustrated magazine and how did it all come about?

The idea came after my husband and I returned from a year travelling around the world with our two children in the late 80s.  I realised how insular our gardening media had become and I was keen to attract readers who were interested in how people gardened abroad as well as wanting to read about distinctive gardens here in the UK. I already knew most of the leading gardening photographers, like Andrew Lawson, and they were as enthusiastic about documenting gardens abroad.  In 1990, I was commissioned by a German publisher to produce a dummy gardening magazine which at that time was deemed to be too expensive a proposition to take forward. The following year, a colleague from the Sunday Times asked me to pitch for a new gardening magazine and luckily I had one to hand!

Looking back, what would you say was your most memorable interview and why? And what was your proudest achievement at Gardens Illustrated?

I managed to track down the artist Frederick Hunderwasser and he agreed to show me, and a photographer, around the surreal extraordinary landscape he had created in New Zealand. He was a recluse and very rarely gave interviews.  

It was a very proud moment to be voted ‘Editors’ Editor’ by The British Society of Magazine Editors in 1996 and for the Gardens Illustrated garden, designed by Arne Maynard and Piet Oudolf to win Best in Show at RHS Chelsea Flower Show 2000 was beyond our wildest dreams.  

You went on to become Curator of Chelsea Physic Garden - can you tell us how that came about?

I became a freelance garden writer when our children were at school and in order to extend my plant knowledge I volunteered as a gardener at the Chelsea Physic Garden under the expert eye of head gardener, (the late) Fiona Crumley. 

Editing Gardens Illustrated was always a challenge and it was only when I saw an advertisement for Curator of Chelsea Physic Garden that I contemplated leaving.   Despite never having run a charity or being botanically trained, my chances of following in the footsteps of horticultural giants like Phillip Miller were slim to say the least.  To my amazement the Trustees decided to take a chance and we gave up our London house to take up residence in London’s oldest botanic garden. As it turned out I was the last curator to live in this historic oasis, dedicated to the study of useful plants which was founded in 1673.

Who has inspired you during your career and do you feel female role models are lacking within the UK horticulture industry?

Journalism was male dominated when I started my working life but garden writing had some pretty good female role models, like Anne Scott-James.  Gardens illustrated was pretty much an all-female team and as soon as we launched Anna Pavord and Penelope Hobhouse were asked to be Associate Editors.  This brought great rewards when Anna and Penny critiqued every issue, in the hope that if we kept polishing our work it would glow.    

How long have you been involved with the RHS? Can you tell us about some of the roles you have held there over the course of your career?

I went to my first Chelsea Flower show when I was a teenager, at a time when you had to be proposed and seconded to be an RHS member. While I was Curator of CPG I trained as a RHS show judge. Then I was appointed a member of the Nominations Appointments and Governance Committee and the RHS Woody Plant committee.  In 2010 was elected to RHS Council where I chaired the Bursaries and Awards Committee

I loved being on the RHS Woody Plant Committee learning from serious plantsmen like Roy Lancaster and Michael Hickson. I became deputy chair to Raymond Evison of clematis fame, who was succeeded by the brilliant Mark Flanagan, Keeper of the Savill gardens.  Mark died unexpectedly in 2015 and I became committee’s first female chairman.

For over 12 years I served on the board of Great Dixter Charitable Trust. I also help found and chair the London Gardens Network along with Fiona Crumley and Mark Lane, then the Queen’s gardener.  I’ve also served on the board of Thrive, the Professional Gardeners Trust and Metropolitan Public Gardens Association, of which I am now a Vice President, and as a  fellow of the Linnean Society I was on their council.  

How do you see the RHS has changed since you first became involved and is there anything you still feel needs to change?

The RHS has changed dramatically since it was founded in 1804.   The society has seen a huge programme of recent expansion with the purchase and development of RHS Bridgewater and the innovations at RHS Wisley. With a new Director General (Clare Matterson) and President (Keith Weed), the charity has become even more collaborative – with RHS scientists working with members to find horticultural solutions to mitigate climate change. They are also working with Government and others to promote horticulture as a profession that attracts well-paid young people from across the spectrum of society. The Chelsea Flower Show is very much the icing on the horticultural cake, but I believe PGB’s recent involvement, thanks to the generosity of our Founders, has made the show more relevant to a wider audience while also giving a platform for charities to promote their good causes.

Can you recall how you first came to hear about the idea of PGB and what your initial reaction was?

Arne Maynard called to see if I would be interested in getting involved in a project to support charities hit hard by the pandemic as well as benefiting the RHS who in 2021, had to close the Chelsea Flower Show for the first time in history.  Our initial goal was to support 40 different charities over three years and their gardens were to be relocated or repurposed around the UK. 

Arne, along with fellow RHS Vice President, Mark Fane and Alex Denman who had been a RHS shows manager, met up with our Founders to set up a charity -  but first we had to find a CEO. Interviews took place and we were in no doubt Harriet Ghaui was the one to lead us forward – and we were right on target. 

PGB is proof philanthropy can have wide-reaching benefits and the blueprint Hattie and the team have created could be picked up by other farsighted, generous individuals who feel the need to give back to society in such a meaningful way.

What do you think is PGB’s biggest achievement so far? 

I am impressed by how we have managed to keep the charity small and agile which means we can help more people than we ever thought possible.  Since our Founders generously agreed to extend the project for another two years we can now expect to fund 60 gardens for good causes at the show which will become a  lasting legacy for generations to come.

What’s next? Tell us what you would still like to achieve in your career?

Unfortunately, my husband fell ill just after our 50th wedding anniversary in autumn 2023 and my priority is to see him restored to health.   We have four grandchildren who give us huge pleasure, and I often think I'd like to create one more garden but I’m not sure if the family share my ambition.

What does receiving the RHS Elizabeth Medal of Honour mean to you? 

Being awarded the EMH came as a huge surprise - I received the letter at a moment when I was really thinking of nothing other than visiting my husband in hospital each day, so it gave me a tremendous boost. The EMH commemorates our late Queen, who was a regular visitor to Chelsea Flower Show. In 2000 she came onto the Gardens Illustrated garden to meet the designers, Piet and Arne who had not only received a gold medal but also won Best in Show. To my horror, the mobile phone I’d been lent by my publisher started ringing in my pocket. Under the disapproving gaze of members of RHS Council, I fumbled to turn the phone off and the Queen calmly said, ‘You had better answer that, it might be someone important.’  Never again will I be able to answer the phone and say, ‘I can’t talk now, I’m with the Queen’.

The Elizabeth Medal of Honour

The Elizabeth Medal of Honour was established in 2023, with the gracious assent of His Majesty King Charles III in perpetual remembrance of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II’s glorious reign. The Medal enables the RHS Council to confer conspicuous honour on those of any nationality that have significantly impacted the advancement of the science, art or practice of horticulture for the benefit of all generations and the environment. In recognition of the duration of Queen Elizabeth’s reign, only 70 medals will be held at any one time.

Read more about the Elizabeth Medal of Honour

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