Robinson, William (1838–1935), horticulturist and author, was born 15 July 1838 in Co. Down to a family of agricultural labourers. He worked as a garden boy on the estate of Sir Hunt Johnson-Walshe in Ballykilcaven, Co. Laois, before taking the position of under-gardener at the Royal Botanic Society's gardens at Regent's Park, London, in 1861. He stayed there for six years and quickly advanced to election as a fellow of the Linnean Society, with Charles Darwin as one of his sponsors. Appointed to represent The Times in the horticultural section of the great Paris exhibition of 1867, he toured France afterwards, an experience that resulted in the first of his fourteen volumes, The parks, promenades and gardens of Paris (1869). Disillusioned with English horticulture, he gave specific recommendations for the improvement of state gardens, such as the creation of shared public nurseries. He also struck an identifiably modern pose as a flâneur strolling the newly appointed boulevards of Paris to record what passes before his mind's eye. Money raised from this book and Alpine flowers for English gardens (1870) financed an expedition to America from which he returned to publish The Garden (1871), the first of five journals that he established, the others being Gardening Illustrated (1879), Farm and Garden (1882), Cottage Garden (1892) and Flora and Sylva (1903). He also edited The Field and published a short-lived daily newspaper, London. He established his fortune as a successful Victorian periodical entrepreneur and all his journals, except the last, enjoyed wide circulation.
His flair for self-promotion led to the publication of his most successful book, The English flower garden (1883), after his journals and books had established his reputation. In it he compared his ideal garden to an art work and established his aim as the pursuit of the beautiful in horticulture. It is divided into two sections; the first is a prose description of the possible types of garden to be cultivated in England, the second a descriptive list of suitable trees, flowering shrubs, evergreens and ferns. His book was an instant success and had a great impact on late nineteenth-century horticulture. Previously the fashion had been to plant carpet beds of flowers that bloomed for only three months of the year, but Robinson encouraged the use of a wider selection of hardy plants whose bloom was sustained. He also introduced a broad range of previously unregarded European flowers to the English habitat. Nor was his eye attracted solely to the decorative aspects of gardening: he was a prime advocate of fruit and vegetable cultivation within city gardens as a means to improve public health.
Robinson used his substantial wealth to buy Gravetye Manor, East Grinstead, Sussex, and accompanying land that finally amounted to nearly 800 acres. He suffered from ill health for much of the latter part of his life and published little more. He died unmarried at his home on 12 May 1935 and left his property to the state.