Maud Messel (1875 – 1960) – a collector of the beautiful old roses.

I first learned of Maud Messel when asked to do some research into her life and her rose gardens. I was captivated not only by the woman herself but the connections she had with some of my favourite people in recent rose history. I discovered she became a friend of Ellen Willmott, author of ‘Genus Rosa’ (1910-1914) who supplied her with roses for her garden at Nymans. She was also a great friend of Eleanour Sinclair Rohde who I admire so much for her academic research into roses and other horticultural subjects. Maud was also known by Graham Stuart-Thomas who visited her rose garden on more than one occasion and wrote about her love of roses.

The Messel family play a vital part in horticultural history. Maud will always be in the archives remembered for the beautiful rose garden she created at Nymans in the 1920s and loved and tended until her death in 1960. Although the garden has undergone changes throughout the years it still retains much of the integrity and dreams of this determined woman of vision.

The rose garden at Nymans during the early summer. (Photograph courtesy of The National Trust).

Maud Frances Sambourne was the daughter of Edward Linley Sambourne, the Punch cartoonist, and  Marion Herapath. In 1898, in her early twenties, she  married Leonard Charles Rudolph Messel after an indecisive courtship. She had resisted marriage for some time enjoying the luxury and freedom of dances and parties that were available to her class in Victorian London. She was a beautiful and sociable young woman who, like her father, was artistic and wished to pursue a career in this field.

Leonard, who was accepted finally, was the son of Ludwig Ernest Wilhelm Leonard Messel (1847-1915) and Annie Messel. The marriage of Leonard and Maud was a long and happy one. The couple had three children, Linley in 1899, Anne in 1902 and Oliver in 1904. Leonard’s father, Ludwig was from a German Jewish family, who settled in England and became successful as a stockbroker. In 1890 he was able to buy the Nymans Estate, a house with 600 acres on a sloping site overlooking the High Weald of Sussex. This estate features very prominently in the lives of Leonard and Maud Messel.

Maud with her two eldest children. (Photograph courtesy of The National Trust).

After their marriage Leonard and Maud bought 37 Gloucester Terrace in London and Balcombe House in the country not far from Nymans. When Gloucester Terrace became too small for their growing family they sold and bought 104 Lancaster Gate. Leonard and Maud led a busy social life while in London but escaped to Balcombe or holiday destinations for at least six months of the year.

At Balcombe Maud and Leonard made a beautiful garden. The flowers of the garden were very much the province of Maud who had always loved them both in the garden and as cut blooms in the house. In particular the soft petalled, highly scented old roses suited her romantic style and at Balcombe she cherished them even though they were regarded as going out of fashion at this time. Maud found a friend in Ellen Willmott, the well-known rosarian of Warley Place in Essex. Without this friendship and the devotion of a small group of enthusiasts, many of the old roses which are valued today would have been lost.

 In 1915 Leonard, now Colonel Leonard Messel, succeeded to the Nymans estate, the gardens of which had been a passion of his father and his gardener, James Comber, who had been inspired by the influential garden writer William Robinson. Maud and the children were not pleased at having to leave Balcombe for Nymans as they were very comfortable in the current house. Leonard compromised by promising to rebuild the house at Nymans in a style to suit Maud. A year or two after their move Leonard, together with ideas from Maud, had the nondescript Regency House replaced with a picturesque stone manor designed by Sir Walter Tapper and Norman Evill.

Leonard and Maud extended the property and during this time subscribed to seed collecting expeditions in the Himalayas and South America. These were possibly inspired by Harold, the son of James Comber the head gardener, who had become a globe-trotting plant collector bringing exotic plants back from the Himalayas and Tasmania. Leonard was a great collector of plants preferring to concentrate on the varieties of a few species. Nymans became famous for its Rhododendrons, Magnolias, Camelias and Hydrangeas with Leonard and James Comber working together to develop these. Leonard also began to collect horticultural books, especially herbals. In the new house a fine library was included to house these. By the end of the 1920s Nymans was known to have one of the best horticultural libraries in the world only surpassed by the English libraries of The British Museum and the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS).

Part of Nymans as it is today. (Photograph courtesy of The National Trust).

It was during the 1920s that Maud, started to fulfil her dream of having a romantic garden of the older roses. A major plant collection began and the layout of the garden, designed by Maud was planned. Under her direction the old yard, with a well at its centre, was remodelled and planted with old-fashioned roses.

Maud could never be an active gardener because she suffered from an arthritic back but she was able to instigate a great collection of roses. There were many roses at Nymans already but the collection was greatly enhanced when her favourites were brought over from Balcombe. Maud, together with her husband, sought the now often rare roses from far and wide. Friends, nurseries and other rose enthusiasts contributed to their collection. Many were given to them by the rosarians Ellen Willmott and Edward Bunyard. Others Maud searched for in Europe especially France. Graham Stuart Thomas, who visited Nymans during the period before the war reports:

 “The old varieties were especially treasured by Mrs Messel and hours were spent turning the pages of Redoutés great volumes trying to identify some of the roses that had reached the gardens from various sources”.

Graham Stuart Thomas also noted some of the roses in the garden at this time notably the ‘Blush Noisette’, He comments that although he had seen this rose here and there in old gardens through the south of England he had not met anyone before, or since, who had an inkling of its name and history. The gardener James Comber had recognised it from Plate 77 in vol. 2 of ‘Les Roses’ (1817-1821) by Pierre-Joseph Redouté. Other roses he noted in Maud’s rose garden were ‘Aimee Vibert’ (1828) and ‘Fellenberg’ (1857), both of which combined the vigour and small clustered flowers of the Musk Rose group with the perpetual flowering habit of the China Rose.

The gardens reached a peak in the 1930s and were regularly opened to the public. Leonard became well known in RHS circles both exhibiting and judging. However, the Second World War had a disastrous effect on both the family and the estate. Three of Leonard and Maud’s nephews were killed in action and the garden suffered from a lack of attention due to a severe reduction of staff.

In 1947 a disastrous fire destroyed the house. All of Leonard and Maud’s treasured possessions were lost, including the contents of the famous library. It is difficult to contemplate the effect that this had on the aging couple, but they were fortunate to be able to buy Holmsted Manor only a few miles from Nymans. They retained some of their enthusiasm for collecting beautiful things and soon their new house reflected their impeccable taste.

 In due course, Nymans was partly rebuilt and later became one of the homes of Leonard and Maud’s daughter, Anne and her second husband the 6th Earl of Rosse. The plant collection was added to in 1949 and 1950 by Maud with the help of James Comber. Further developments were made by Lady Rosse in the 1960s, after the death of her mother, with the help of Graham Stuart Thomas. Lady Rosse took a particular interest in the rose garden adding many more old varieties. Nymans had been included in the gardens of The National Trust in 1953 in order to preserve the unique creation of the Messel family. This is the culmination of a long story, but it was the wishes of Leonard and Maud that this should happen.

Sadly Leonard died at Holmsted Manor on the 4th February 1953, a few days before his eighty-first birthday. Maud died, aged eighty-four, on the 8th March 1960, two months before one of her grandsons, Anthony Armstrong Jones, married Princess Margaret. The deaths of both Maud and Leonard left huge voids within a close family and also within the horticultural world. The obituary which appeared in The Times the day after Maud’s death included the following lines:

“In her later years Mrs Messel was more than the legendary great lady of an archaic past. Certainly her exquisite manner and presence belonged to a different age from ours. Her iridiscent, almost gossamer-like beauty was that of the tenderly nurtured exotic than of the wild hedgerow flower. Her sad and gentle voice, however, spoke from the depths of unfeigned compassion and understanding. And beneath her apparent fragility lay a strength of character, an invincibility of courage, and an insatiable fund of interest in all around her.”

She was much loved by her friends and family, especially her children and grandchildren and like her husband who died before her was sadly missed by many.

Michael Gibson in his book ‘The Rose Garden’s of England’ (1988) recalls many of the roses he found at Nymans including a rambler at the entrance to the rose garden ‘Princess Marie’, a possible sempervirens hybrid raised in France by Jacques in 1829, ‘Pauls Himalayan Musk’, a vast tree in a dell beyond the front of the house cascading down from about 12 metres, Kiftsgate,  R polyantha Grandiflora together with Gallicas, Damasks, Centifolias and Albas as you would expect to find in a Victorian Rose Garden. He listed a number of roses of special interest because they were rare and hardly ever seen: the American Van Fleet climber ‘Breeze Hill’, ‘Lady Curzon’, ‘Sissinghurst Castle’, ‘Rene Andre’, a Wichuarana Rambler, ‘Cerise Bouquet’, ‘Honorine de Brabant’, ‘R rugose Rubra’, ‘The Chestnut Rose’, ‘The White Rose of York’  and ‘Maidens Blush’ both Albas.

In the 1990s the rose garden was again redesigned and when complete was officially opened by Lady Frances Armstrong Jones, Maud’s great granddaughter. Although Maud’s plan to restrict her garden to the roses of old has not been strictly followed I am sure she would like to know that it still thrives and that there are over 600 bushes of 115 varieties. In June, the fragrance of the roses can be smelled before they are seen.

(Since writing this story I have acquired ‘A Garden Flora’ by Leonard and Muriel Messel which lists the roses collected by Maud Messel and which were in the garden at the time. I also have found an article, written by Eleanour Sinclair Rohde in a Royal Horticultural Society Journal which lists many of the books that were in the famous horticultural library of Leonard Messel).

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