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Obituary: Robin Williams (1935-2018)

Remembering the influential designer and founding SGD Member

On Friday 30 November 2018, Robin Williams FSGD sadly passed away at home after a long illness. As one of the Garden Design Society’s founder members, he was consistently a mover and shaker in the profession and served as chairman in its earliest days. He was one of that first generation of professional garden designers whose work – as seen in his show gardens and many publications – established the language of good, thoughtful design and made it accessible to all.

Williams was always a keen communicator, teaching and lecturing widely and internationally, not just on the subject of design, but on the importance of ethical practice within the industry. His dedication to setting and promoting standards of excellence in the profession saw him work with organisations including the Institute of Horticulture and the RHS, which in 2003 awarded him the prestigious Veitch Memorial Medal.

Williams began his career in the 1960s, first as a landscape contractor then, as he became increasingly interested in design, becoming chief garden designer at Jackman’s Nurseries in Woking, Surrey. Three years there was followed by five years in the post of lecturer at Merrist Wood College, and where he taught students of various levels, many of whom he stayed in touch with.

But in 1978, it was all change again, as he decided that the time had come to return to the drawing board and he set about establishing himself as a freelance designer with an international garden and landscape design practice. The practice would later become a partnership with his son, Robin Templar Williams FSGD – not so much a family affair as ‘a design team’, as he explained to GDJ in 2016. “We each have our own clients. We work independently, but in harmony,” he said.

In 1981, garden design as a profession was still in its youth, and a group of the regular exhibitors at the Chelsea Flower Show had begun talking about the need to form a society to represent themselves. These were designers committed to their career but without an affiliation, Williams said, “and so it was a natural coming together of people who wanted to make garden design official and establish it as a serious profession.” The original ‘Magnificent Seven’ founder members were Williams, Peter Rogers (the first chairman), Paul Temple, Basil Seymour, James Seymour, Geoff Whiten and Rosemary Alexander, and the first meeting was held at Paul Temple’s home in East Molesey. “The meetings were usually pretty lively affairs,” he remembered.

Over a career that spanned 40 years, Williams won no less than 12 Chelsea medals and took commissions all over the globe, from Europe and the USA to Southeast Asia, Russia and the Ukraine. His show gardens also garnered awards in Japan, where he was hugely successful. In choosing him as the winner of the 2015 SGD Lifetime Achievement Award, the SGD Council was in no doubt of the contribution he made to the industry.

He deserved the accolade, they said, because he spearheaded and actively supported ground-breaking work within the Society to ensure that landscape design is taught and implemented to the highest standards and professionalism. “His design work exemplifies this classic attention to detail, and has been most generously and humbly shared with students, mentees and members alike. He communicates these timeless qualities of good design in his written works and in the many gardens that have stood the test of time and still delight today.”

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