Tribute to rose grower and breeder Robert Harkness

Company: Harkness


29th  June  1951 - 8th  November  2012

His friends in the world of roses were deeply saddened to hear the news of the death of Robert Harkness on November 8th in Addenbrookes Hospital, Cambridge, at the comparatively young age of 61. 

Robert was the second child and elder son of Jack and Betty Harkness. For a future rosarian, his arrival on June 29th 1951 could hardly have been more propitious.  It was his father’s birthday, the height of the flowering season, and the day of The National Rose Society’s Great Summer Show.

Robert grew up in Letchworth Garden City, and from his earliest years imbibed from his parents a knowledge and love of all aspects of the rose.  He attended The Friends’ School at Saffron Walden, where the Quaker ethos of thoughtfulness and consideration for others had a lasting influence on his character.  At school he excelled in sport, and when he was sixteen the school selected him as an outstanding pupil to spend a year as an exchange student in a sister Quaker school in Pennsylvania.  It proved impracticable for Robert to return home between terms, and through this experience, as a virtual ambassador for his country, he made many friends in a strange land and came home a resourceful, self reliant young man.

Anxious to make his way in the world, Robert enrolled in a horticultural course in the Netherlands, and wryly wrote home to say his first lesson was about feet and inches, which plantsmen there found more useful than metric units.  He had a gift for languages and in addition to Dutch mastered German and French. 

Robert soon showed his spirit of independence by opening his own nursery, marketing and supplying roses wholesale to other growers.  He developed a special growing medium called ‘Build & Feed’ which, attractively packaged, found a ready sale, and repeat orders when buyers saw the results.  His business was thriving in the boom years of the early 1970s when he decided it was time for a change.  He had developed a great love of sailing, despite an early yachting experience when the skipper tied him to the mast in heavy weather to prevent him falling in the sea.  Robert wanted to embark on his own exploration of the wider world.

From Gibraltar he found work crewing a boat to St. Lucia, then spent many months in and around the Caribbean.  Eighteen months later, a sun-tanned and fit Robert re-entered the rose world, this time with the Harkness firm.  Under Jack’s tutelage he absorbed the mysteries of rose breeding, so that when the time came for the senior generation to retire in 1989, he and his brother Philip were well qualified by experience and ability to take the reins, not only at the nursery but in wider fields, as when Robert served as President of the British Association of Rose Breeders from 1999 to 2002.

Robert was never afraid of change if it was carefully considered and would bring improvements.  One consequence was to sell the garden centre in order to concentrate on the firm’s core rose business, and another was to open an office in France to market new varieties more effectively.  His house in France became a family home when he met Edda, and their marriage in June 2001 was celebrated to coincide with his fiftieth birthday. 

Robert’s innate gentleness, wisdom, sense of humour and fount of knowledge made him a welcome visitor to many international rose events.  In 2004 he was the keynote speaker at the National Convention in Pretoria.

At Robert’s funeral this poem was read, a personal tribute from his friend David Crawshay:

The spell is near, it was never far away.
The smile, the charm, that casual air, always lingered long.

Sail and wind pushed the path to ports and havens far and near.
Kind words and wisdom to one and all.

So the animals were blessed.
The plants too accepted the hand of one who dared better nature.
Beauty and perfection were oft their reward.  For all to see.

The scent glorious hangs in the air, gathering these specks of eternity,
The stuff our dreams are made of.

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Maryann,  5 Jun 2021:
...I remember Robert well the one year he shared with us at Westtown School...his wonderful positive attitude, red cheeks, thoughtful manner...I think we may have been lab partners in one class...either way, I can see him sailing, running a business and curious about roses and all...a delightful person to have known even if briefly...sail on Robert...sail on....

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