Constance Spry

The life and work of David Austin Senior

Eminent rosarian David Austin Senior died on Tuesday 18 December at his home in Shropshire, aged 92. This interview by Francesca Greenoak took place in 2002 for issue 78 of Gardens Illustrated, and gives a small insight to Austin's incredible life and work breeding world-famous roses

This week, David Austin Roses Ltd announced the passing of their founder David C. H. Austin Senior OBE VMH. David Snr died peacefully at his home in Shropshire on Tuesday 18 December, surrounded by his family. He was 92.

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In a statement, David Austin Roses Ltd said “For over 75 years David’s dedication to roses brought fragrance and beauty to gardens all over the world. A perfectionist at heart, he bred more than 200 English roses during his extraordinary career, unwaveringly in pursuit of an ever more beautiful rose.”

Below is an interview by Francesca Greenoak from issue 78 of Gardens Illustrated, in which David Austin discusses his life and work breeding roses. The interview was published in 2002, and in the 15 years since it’s amazing to see how many of his wishes for rose breeding and the business came true, along with other personal accolades.

David Austin
(1926-2018)

Mr David Austin Senior. Photo by Express and Star
Mr David Austin Senior. Photo by Express and Star

David Austin is probably the best-known contemporary rose-breeder in the world. His ‘English Roses’ are an entirely different type of rose combining the particular charm and fragrance of old roses with the summer-long flowering of a modern rose. Austin’s roses are sought under licence in most countries, but this quiet, self-possessed man genuinely dislikes self-promotion. He prefers to let his reputation and his roses speak for themselves.

What motivated him; gave him the self-confidence to start a business that professional rose breeders told him would be a non-starter? Austin was born in 1926 into a farming family in Albrighton, near Wolverhampton, where he lives now. He was a child gardener who grew plants from seed under the tutelage of the skilled family gardener. “My grandmother saw how interested I was in vegetables and ornamental flower growing and let me extend my garden.” Just before the Second World War, Austin’s immediate family moved to Shrewsbury, where he went to school, but remained keen on gardening.

It was natural for him to go into the family farm and he loved it, though he kept his interest in garden plants and began to be drawn to roses. “I started breeding roses for myself at the age of 21, in my spare time, using Gallicas and Floribundas.” Even then, his objective was clear: “I had the idea of crossing old roses with modern roses,” he recalls, “to produce a scented rose with rosette-shaped or cupped flowers. My emphasis has always been on charm and beauty rather than sheer brilliance of colour.” He was totally out of line with the trends of the day. The fashion for hybrid teas as stiff, bright, uniform bedding was at its height, but he says simply: “I thought this obsession with hybrid teas was a dead end when there were so many other beautiful roses. Some people seemed to be breeding only for profit. In my experience, people who look only for profit, don’t make any.”

My emphasis has always been on charm and beauty rather than sheer brilliance of colour.
David Austin Senior

Austin continued to breed roses for his own pleasure and married in 1956. Two sons and a daughter followed. The work of his wife, sculptress Pat Austin, greatly enhances the beauty of the present rose garden at Albrighton. So what made a young, successful farmer start off on a new career that seemed to promise nothing? “I always had hope for the future,” he says.

He was 35 before he was able to introduce his first two roses: ‘Constance Spry’ and ‘Chianti’. “I was still an amateur with very little thought of becoming a professional nurseryman.” Difficulties in getting his roses marketed as he wished led him to start David Austin Roses in 1969, specialising in old and modern roses as well as his own roses. “It was a stiff lesson in business,” he remembers, “and in how business has to be dovetailed with the creativity of rose-breeding.”

English roses have been hailed as a great innovation, but going against the tide required considerable strength of will. “I was never that influenced by what other people said or thought,” he muses. “I’m slightly dyslexic and I think I make connections that other people don’t.”

While happy with his success in business, David’s passion is still in developing roses. “I would continue to breed roses even if there was no money involved,” he says. He takes particular pleasure in the achievements of his son David and in the family business and in his daughter Claire, who has her own hardy plant nursery.

David Austin has introduced 140 English roses to date and has a sturdy reputation. His numerous awards include the RHS Veitch medal in 1994 (David Austin’s English Roses was voted best book by the Garden Writers’ Guild that year) and the Victoria Medal of Honour in 2002. He acknowledges that “what we have now is, amazingly, almost exactly what I long ago visualised”. Contented retirement, however, does not appear to be on the agenda. “The wonderful thing about rose breeding is that there’s always something different to try for,” he says, “I want to breed more disease-free roses – ‘The Mayflower’ is top so far – and get English-type roses marked as cut flowers. I have lots of ideas for improving the things I care about: scent and beauty of form.”

As a result of his hybridising ideas, David Austin now sows some 300,000 seeds each year and the glasshouses are packed with thousands of his trialling selections. “There are so many leads – many of them blind alleys. You need great patience and the skill to recognise what is really outstanding. Every time I make a cross, I think there is always something more beautiful to come.”

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Photo Express and Star, with thanks to David Austin Ltd