Monday, April 22, 2024

Robin Herbert, horticulturalist and banker, 1934-2024 -Dlight News

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Robin Herbert was happiest among trees, particularly those that, unexceptional in spring, blaze in autumn: maples, liquidambar, carya. Transformation was his speciality, but he never rushed: whether in finance, horticulture or on woodland walks, he combined an immensely long stride with purposefulness. “On time is late,” he told his children. “Five minutes early is on time.” Late, of course, was unacceptable.

When Herbert, who has died aged 89, was elected president and chair of the Royal Horticultural Society in 1984, the coffers were empty and membership clustered in the home counties. A banker with years of experience at the National Trust and the Countryside Commission, Herbert brought a clear vision of the revolution required, and its timescale. Yes, he said to the ruling Council, he would hold office if voted in, but for no more than a decade. 

On his watch, the RHS acquired Rosemoor in Devon and Hyde Hall in Essex to complement its flagship garden at Wisley in Surrey, and launched new horticultural shows outside London.

With his treasurer, fellow financier Lawrence Banks, he returned the Society to the black and more than doubled membership to 189,000. Sure, there was a row when members no longer got Chelsea Flower Show tickets with their subscriptions, but it passed. The first Chelsea Gala evening in 1990 unlocked prestige and sponsorship. Soon, Herbert was the go-to man for every major horticultural institution: as Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew chair (1991-97), he disentangled them from the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, and, with Dame Jennifer Jenkins, he reformed the Royal Parks.

Through all this, plants were central. Business acumen was all very well, but what Herbert had most relished on first joining the RHS in the 1970s was debating the merits of the latest variety of Pittosporum or Sorbus with fellow tree-lovers on Floral Committee B (Woody Plants). As president, he reformed a somewhat random awards scheme into one that nurseries could trust: the Award of Garden Merit is granted for exceptional plants, each remarkable for qualities known only to those who study a specimen’s progress over years. 

Robin Herbert peering round a hedge and smiling
On Robin Herbert’s watch, the RHS returned to the black and more than doubled its membership to 184,000 © Image supplied by family

Herbert’s own resilience developed young: his father, Conservative MP Sir John Herbert, died in Kolkata as governor of Bengal in 1943; his mother, Lady Mary Herbert, died four years later. An orphan at 13, Herbert’s inheritance was 3,500 acres of Monmouthshire plus hefty debts. 

Into the breach stepped his godfather, the plantsman Bobby Jenkinson, and his American grandmother, Lady Herbert, née Helen Gammell, from a Rhode Island business dynasty. Advised by her, Herbert supplemented his Eton, Royal Horseguards, Oxford trajectory with an MBA at Harvard Business School and a stint as a Wall Street analyst. He returned to Wales in 1957 with a suitcase full of seed cones from California’s Redwood forests, and an appetite for change. In 1960, he married Margaret Lewis, with whom he was to have four children before divorce in 1988.

In 1963, he joined a consortium to buy a small merchant bank in London. Its leaders, Prince Rupert Loewenstein and Alexis de Redé, fixed upon Leopold Joseph — founded in 1919 by a German-born journalist-banker whose family was out of heirs. They invited Jonathan Guinness of the brewing clan, Anthony Berry of the newspaper dynasty, and — almost as an afterthought — Herbert. “Initially I was in the loop, but outside the inner loop,” he said. “Over the years, I always had a desk there but wasn’t in any way executive. Then gradually, various people left and I became chair.” 

That was 1978 and there were hiccups ahead: Loewenstein had brought in The Rolling Stones as clients, but rock star tax dealings gave the board palpitations and by 1981 Loewenstein struck out solo. Leopold Joseph weathered storms — including a lawsuit from the singer Yusuf Islam (previously Cat Stevens) — and thrived as a private bank while its rivals were picked off inexorably by bigger players. 

When Herbert, supported by his second wife, Philippa Hooper (née King), steered it to a sale to the Bank of Butterfield for £51.5mn in 2004, the FT wrote of “the end of an era”.

Herbert’s collaborative skill and courteous manner won him friends in and beyond the City. The list of his directorships fills three inches in Who’s Who, but his greatest pride lies in the park at Llanover in Monmouthshire, where those Californian seed cones are now two acres of prizewinning Sequoia Sempervirens, each 150ft tall. 

The writer is Robin Herbert’s son-in-law

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