Rather than the oft-quoted “nation of shopkeepers,” England would be more aptly described as a nation of gardeners, and certainly of garden lovers. During the past two years, England’s parks and gardens have offered welcome relief to thousands weary of the restrictions placed on daily life by the Covid pandemic. One of the most celebrated and beautiful of England’s gardens is Exbury, located in the venerable New Forest in Hampshire.
A woodland garden, rather than a formal one, “it was designed around the original native oaks and other trees,” explains Exbury’s head gardener, Thomas Clarke. “Scots Pine, originally from the Caledonian forest and widely planted in the New Forest during the last two centuries, also feature prominently in the Gardens,” he notes, adding that “other native species, including beech and hornbeam, are complemented with many imported varieties from around the world’s temperate regions.” Capitalizing on the gentle lay of the land, which borders the Beaulieu River, Exbury Gardens strikes a balance between its extraordinary canopy of trees and its luxuriant, large-scale plantings of flowers and flowering shrubs. “Woodland gardens had existed before Exbury,” explains Lionel de Rothschild, chairman of the Exbury Gardens Trust and a grandson (and namesake) of its creator. Citing such woodland predecessors as the Cornish gardens at Caerhays and Lanarth, established respectively by cousins J. C. and P. D. Williams, Borde Hill Garden in West Sussex, and Bodnant in North Wales, he adds: “Toward the end of the nineteenth century a less formal aesthetic, whether in woodland gardens or flower borders, had succeeded the Victorian craze for elaborate bedding schemes.” De Rothschild is the co-author of the recently published book, “The Eighth Wonder of the World”: Exbury Gardens and the Rothschilds. Elegantly written and richly illustrated, it reveals the eventful history of this beautiful place and its importance, both to horticulture and to human delight, as well as the Rothschild family legacy of garden cultivation beginning in the early nineteenth century.
Exbury is renowned throughout the sceptered isle for its astounding collection of native and exotic plant species and especially for its glorious springtime display of rhododendrons and azaleas, whose panoply of color and texture peaks between the end of April and early May. Adding to this floral tapestry are the displays of camellias and magnolias and the springtime bulbs that blossom in Daffodil Meadow and the River of Gold. Seasonal colors succeed one another through the summer and right through the red and gold shades of fall foliage and the autumn display of nerines in the Five Arrows Gallery. Moreover, Exbury boasts its own narrow-gauge steam railway system, which, since its opening in 2001, remains an endearing attraction.
The Exbury Gardens were created by Lionel Nathan de Rothschild. He was the great-great-grandson of Mayer Amschel Rothschild of Frankfurt—whose five sons established the family financial dynasty through a ring of banking houses in Frankfurt, London, Paris, Vienna, and Naples. Lionel Nathan’s grandfather and namesake, Lionel de Rothschild (1808–1879), ran the London bank, then called N. M. Rothschild and Sons, together with his younger brothers, making history for, among other things, advancing the £4 million (an astronomical sum at the time) required by Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli’s government to purchase the Suez Canal shares suddenly offered to France by the nearly bankrupt Khedive of Egypt in 1875. In 1858 Lionel also had become the first practicing Jew to serve in the British Parliament (and the first of several Rothschilds to do so thereafter). Disraeli, though born Jewish, had been baptized as a boy.
Lionel Nathan himself served as MP for Aylesbury, in Buckinghamshire, from 1910 to 1923, addressing the House of Commons on issues important to his constituents and to the Jewish community. In 1912 he married Marie-Louise Beer, who was a descendant of another German-Jewish banking family through which she was a great-great-great-niece of the celebrated composer Giacomo Meyerbeer, whose French grand operas, especially Les Huguenots and Le Prophète, were standard repertoire before World War I. Mariloo, as she was known en famille, would prove to be an admirable custodian of Lionel’s horticultural ideals at Exbury after his death in 1942.
In his youth Lionel had been a pioneering collector of fast Edwardian cars and motorboats. The latter were a luxurious marine novelty during the heyday of the Lusitania, Olympic, and other great liners, but Lionel not only enjoyed racing, he broke the world water-speed record in 1906 with his friend and fellow enthusiast John Douglas-Scott-Montagu, later the second Lord Montagu.
Motorboating with Montagu on the Solent—the stretch of the English Channel between England’s South Coast and the Isle of Wight—had familiarized Lionel with the beauties of coastal Hampshire, and after establishing a London home, Hampshire beckoned to him as a spot to build a country seat for his new wife. The Exbury estate lay next to that of his friend Montagu at Beaulieu, but because it was not on the market at that time, Lionel purchased nearby Inchmery House.
His youthful gardening enthusiasms already honed at his parents’ West London home, Gunnersbury Park, Lionel was keen to rebuild Inchmery House and develop the grounds. However, the outbreak of war in 1914 put these plans on hold. Having joined N. M. Rothschild and Sons, Lionel entered the family’s traditional regiment, the Buckinghamshire Yeomanry, receiving a captaincy in 1910. While his two brothers, Evelyn and Anthony, went off to battle, Lionel was requested by George V to remain at the office, due to the national importance of the bank. It was felt that a young Rothschild was required there to ensure continuity lest illness or death overtake his elderly father, Leopold de Rothshild, and two uncles, Alfred and Nathaniel Mayer, the latter known as Natty, the first Lord Rothschild. Indeed, when Natty died in 1915, Lionel was made a partner in the firm.
By the end of the war, the bank’s old guard had passed away, and from his uncle Alfred, Lionel inherited Halton House in the Chiltern Hills. Preferring to continue raising his family at Inchmery, and preferring Hampshire’s ample horticultural possibilities to the clay Chiltern soil, Lionel sold Halton to the Air Ministry in 1918, using the proceeds to make a more important purchase that suddenly came onto the market the next year—Exbury.
The estate had been owned for much of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries by the Mitford family (whose twentieth-century descendants included the authors Nancy and Jessica Mitford). Its owner in 1919, Sir Henry William Forster (1866–1936), had received a peerage that year, but had lost both his sons in battle. Offered the appointment as governorgeneral of Australia, Forster jumped at it and sold the Exbury estate to Lionel. The cost was £60,000 (more than $4 million today), and the property included the eighteenth-century Exbury House, twenty-six hundred acres of land, and the nearby village of Exbury.
Long neglected, the landscape included cypress trees descended from a cypress cone taken from a memorial wreath that had fallen from the Duke of Wellington’s catafalque during the Iron Duke’s funeral in 1852. Tom Clarke says that “several trees still survive from the Mitfords’ time, including the large cedars, sequoia, and the astonishingly twisted Oriental plane known as ‘the Wiggly Tree.’”
Exbury’s acid soil invited cultivation of Lionel’s favorite flowers—and upon bringing Mariloo to visit their new home, he declared, “what a wonderful scope for a rhododendron wood.”
But before transforming the tangled land into his envisioned Eden, Lionel had to domesticate it. He hired a team of 150 men and sixty trained gardeners to clear the overgrowth, lay paths, and do the planting. To nurture a million new plants, two acres of greenhouses were erected and twenty-two miles of irrigation piping installed. Exbury village required expansion to house this horticultural militia, as well as the construction of a water tower with generators to supply the new village housing with water and with power to the new greenhouses and Exbury House itself.
By 1920 Lionel de Rothschild was becoming known for his talent for growing rhododendrons. Over the ensuing two decades, rhododendrons continued to flourish under his hands as did azaleas and orchids. Repeatedly he exploited the landscape’s natural features to create sheltered areas where plantings and landscape worked in visual harmony, as at the Top, Middle, and Bottom Ponds in the area called Home Wood. With his painterly eye for massings of texture, shape, and color, he sought to create a continuous series of vistas to achieve surprising effects as walkers made their way along the paths. Where he created vistas, he placed benches for contemplating them. One of the most beautiful focuses on the Japanese Bridge, built by Lionel over the stream flowing into Top Pond in homage to Monet’s bridge at Giverny. (Fig. 2). Not only had he designed the paths themselves as covers for the irrigation pipes so that they would remain clear of roots and be accessible to workmen, he also made them wide enough to allow him to drive his Armstrong Siddeley runabout auto through the gardens.
Even as a private garden, Exbury’s fame spread with that of its hospitable master and mistress. There were weekend visits from friends, from members of the Rhododendron Society (later the Rhododendron Association), from officials from Kew and the Royal Horticultural Society. Winston and Clementine Churchill came for a weekend in 1924, joined by Kew director W. J. Bean and the renowned botanist, plant hunter, and author Frank Kingdon-Ward. Royalty visited too—Queen Mary in 1925, she and George V in 1931 (Fig. 19), the Prince of Wales (later Duke of Windsor) in 1934.
Alas, the 1930s witnessed increasingly threatening times throughout Europe, as rising Nazism forced many Continental members of the Rothschild family to flee their ancestral homes. When the war came, Exbury and its surroundings experienced its fury: the bombing of nearby Southampton, a major port city, sent flames and horror into the night sky from November 1940 through the following July. Bombs fell on Exbury itself, one leaving a fifty-six-foot-wide crater in Home Wood, others destroying several of Lionel’s glasshouses. Nevertheless, after one bomb fell only “twenty yards from the back door,” he commented, with typical pluck, “It is fortunate that the Germans are poor shots.” Exbury House itself was placed under Royal Navy control from May 1942 to July 1945. Renamed “HMS Mastodon,” it was a center of preparations for D-Day, including the training and arming of the crews of the amphibious landing craft deployed in the Normandy invasion.
Sadly, the squire of Exbury died before the Mastodon was commissioned. In failing health since 1940, Lionel succumbed to lung cancer in January 1942, three days after his sixtieth birthday. Writing in Country Life that February, G. C. Taylor observed that with his death, “English horticulture in general, and the rhododendron world in particular, have lost one of their most devoted servants and an acknowledged master.”
Meanwhile the war took its toll, most dramatically in April 1944, seven weeks before D-Day, when two British fighter planes shot down a German bomber. After circling over the Mastodon in a hail of British bullets, the bomber crashed in front of the house, killing its seven-man crew. The incident was fictionalized as an important plot device of Nevil Shute’s 1955 novel, Requiem for a Wren (published as The Breaking Wave in the US).
After the war, Lionel’s elder son, Edmund (Fig. 11), stepped into his father’s shoes, embarking on the restoration of Exbury Gardens on his return from active duty. Over the next five decades Edmund (“Mr. Eddy”) replanted around three-quarters of the acreage. He not only produced several dozen rhododendron hybrids but also developed the Solent Range of hardy and richly colored Exbury deciduous azaleas, many of which are planted down the path called Lover’s Lane. Today the blossoming each spring of the dazzling pinks, purples, and whites massed in the Azalea Bowl, created in 1964 around Middle Pond, draws crowds of visitors (Fig. 17).
In 1955, the year the house was decommissioned by the Navy, Edmund opened Exbury Gardens to the public, thereafter thoroughly enjoying himself by going about trimming away dead wood, and often surprising visitors by popping out of a rhododendron thicket to ask, “Are you lost?” Later on, brandishing loppers, he would drive along the garden paths stopping to introduce himself to tourists while making a beeline for a rhododendron he deemed in need of tidying. Visitors loved it.
Edmund’s four children grew up at Inchmery House, at the south end of the estate, and now oversee the gardens: Kate, an authority on Old Master drawings, is a trustee of the Wallace Collection. Her husband, banker and financier Marcus Agius, CBE, formerly chairman of trustees of the Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew, chairs Exbury Gardens, Limited. Nicholas, a photographer and author made two films about the gardens and serves as curator of the nerine collection there. Author and photographer Lionel is a trustee of the Rothschild Archive in London and closely involved with running the Exbury estate. His twin, Charlotte, is a concert soprano who performs and records an art song repertoire in more than twenty languages. She recalls that “the garden wasn’t initially open to the public every day, and therefore it was our giant playground. We used to get on our bicycles, come to the garden and then wander round. I remember playing in the so-called Domesday Yew, a hollow tree when both Lionel and I were small enough to fit inside, and we would pretend to have picnics.”
In time, Edmund, who had become a senior partner in the bank in 1960 and, in 1970, chairman of N. M. Rothschild and Sons, when the bank ceased to be a private partnership and became a limited company, entrusted planning for Exbury’s future to his younger brother Leopold (Fig. 8), who brought considerable modernizing skills to Exbury’s horticultural record keeping. Leo also created and endowed the charitable Exbury Gardens Trust to guarantee future support for the gardens.
He also had another idea, born of his lifelong delight in the heady aroma of coal, steam, and hot oil that heralds the snorting presence of a steam locomotive (a delight shared by this writer). A self-confessed “railway nut,” Leo celebrated his seventieth birthday by chartering a steam-hauled train to bring his guests down from London, promising them that they would ride on his own line within five years. The new Summer Lane Garden was created for it in what had once been a quarry. Work started in 2000 and was completed by August 2001. Following locomotive trials, trains began steaming out of the Victorian-style Exbury Central station (Fig. 9). Originally there were two locomotives, custom-built by the Exmoor Steam Railway, to draw the narrow-gauge trains, but the Exbury line’s popularity grew so quickly that a third and larger engine was ordered. Named “Mariloo” in memory of Marie- Louise, it entered service in 2008 and had the distinction of carrying Elizabeth II in the cab, with Leo at the throttle, on her majesty’s visit to Exbury that year. A more poignant occasion took place in 2012, when, after Leo’s death, his wish was honored that his coffin be granted one final trip aboard his railway.
Today, strolling through Exbury Gardens’ twentytwo miles of paths can lead visitors not only through the visual pleasures of successive seasons but through the variety of different plantings and treatments that distinguish such areas as the Iris and Herbaceous gardens, the Sundial and American gardens, the Hydrangea Walk, and the Nyssa Collection. Among the recent developments, the Dragonfly Pond features plants attractive to these majestic insects and is furnished with floating pontoons so that visitors can enjoy the wildlife activity at close range. There’s even a Dragonfly Halt platform on the steam railway to facilitate visitor access. In 2021 a second River Walk was completed to complement the long-popular River Walk along the banks of the Beaulieu.
Asked if the current members of the Exbury Rothschilds studied horticulture formally, Lionel de Rothschild informed me that though his niece Marie- Louise Agius—who designed the 2019 Centenary Garden (Fig. 10)—has studied landscape gardening and is a practicing professional, “the rest of us came to it through osmosis.”
“I do think our affinity is something that increases over time,” he writes, “but we have all been enthused and involved for most of our adult lives and more. However, none of us compare to [Grandfather] Lionel, who quite simply lived and breathed gardening: his knowledge, enthusiasm and energy were extraordinary and while there is no doubt that we have developed the garden since his day, it remains primarily his vision and his creation.”
This article is based primarily on Lionel de Rothschild and Francesca Murray Rowlins, “The Eighth Wonder of the World”: Exbury Gardens and the Rothschilds (Exbury, UK: Exbury Gardens Ltd., 2021), the Rothschild Archive, and my email correspondence with Thomas Clarke at Exbury Gardens and with Lionel and Charlotte de Rothschild.