A green-fingered industrialist who devoted his retirement to cultivating spectacular gardens of world renown
Published 29/05/2011 | 05:00
THE greatest passion of Ambrose Congreve, who has died aged 104, was gardening. At Mount Congreve, his Irish Georgian family seat near Kilmeadan, Co Waterford, he established gardens of world renown, noted especially for their magnificent displays of flowering woodland plants. The collection of rhododendrons that he built up there is one of the largest in the world.
As a businessman he ran Humphreys & Glasgow, the gasworks manufacturers and petrochemical engineers, from 1939, when he took over from Dr Arthur Glasgow, his father-in-law and a co-founder of the firm, until 1983, when the company was sold to an American concern.
Congreve divided his time between Mount Congreve and a large house in the St James's area of London, where he entertained lavishly. He employed numerous indoor and outdoor staff and a succession of fine chefs de cuisine, including, for a time, Albert Roux who went on to co-found Le Gavroche restaurant in London.
Ambrose Congreve was born on April 4 1907, the son of Major John Congreve and his wife Lady Helena (nee Ponsonby), a daughter of the 8th Earl of Bessborough.
The Bessboroughs were friends of Lionel de Rothschild, senior partner of NM Rothschild & Sons, the private bank, and the creator, in the years after World War One, of the noted gardens, with acres of rhododendrons, camellias, magnolias, azaleas and other flowering woodland plants, at Exbury, on The Solent in Hampshire.
It was childhood visits to Exbury that ignited an early love of gardening in Congreve (at the age of 11, as he recalled) and it was Lionel de Rothschild's taste and style of gardening that provided the inspiration for the later plantings at Mount Congreve.
After Eton and Trinity College, Cambridge, Congreve joined Unilever, working for the company from 1927 to 1936 in England and in China. Having married Arthur Glasgow's daughter Marjorie in 1935, he joined the board of Humphreys & Glasgow the next year. Glasgow had founded the firm in partnership with Alexander Humphreys in 1892. With operations based in London and New York, H&G's business was the erection of gas manufacturing plants and apparatus and the firm's gas plants were to be installed all over the world.
Following Lionel de Rothschild's death in 1942, Congreve acquired various mementoes of his gardening hero at the contents sale of de Rothschild's town house in Kensington Palace Gardens.
After the war Congreve returned to the helm of H&G, for which the Fifties and the Sixties were times of prosperity: there were major contracts with the British Gas Board for plants producing gas from coal and oil, and under Congreve the firm diversified successfully into petrochemical engineering.
With the discovery of North Sea oil and gas, however, and with a downturn in the chemical industry, business declined. A move into the offshore oil and gas business proved successful until a worldwide recession made it difficult for H&G to compete. Congreve retired in 1983, when the company was sold to a business concern based in Dallas, Texas, and he was able to devote as much time as he chose to his gardens -- some 110 acres in extent -- in Co Waterford. The main part of his scheme at Mount Congreve is woodland, with magnolias (300 varieties), camellias (600 varieties), rhododendrons (3,000 varieties) and azaleas, Japanese cherries and maples (250 types) and much else besides, including half a mile of hostas.
These plantings are overlooked by 18th and 19th Century plantations of oak and beech (Congreves have been living there for 300 years), and there are more than 16 miles of paths winding in and around them, now and again, affording fine views of the River Suir.
Four acres of walled garden are arranged into May, June, July and August borders, each filled with varieties of herbaceous plants, including special iris beds and hydrangeas in north-facing beds.
Runs of every sort of vegetable that can be grown in Ireland are interspersed with rows of aster and chrysanthemums for Mount Congreve House.
Ranges of glasshouses provided grapes, peaches and nectarines for the table, and there are displays of orchids, collections of rare fuchsias and begonias, and of almost extinct varieties of cyclamen. Hibiscus, gerbera and great stands of tall carnations were all for use in the house.
Some 70 people are employed between Mount Congreve's gardens, house and wholesale nursery; and to mark the occasion of his 100th birthday in 2007, Congreve planted a Wollemi Pine (the oldest fossil of which dates back 90 million years) which had been presented to him by his staff. He was anxious that the garden remained accessible to the public after his death. Ambrose Congreve was a tall, slender man who retained a full head of hair (latterly snow-white) into his second century. But for deteriorating eyesight, he remained remarkably -- almost unnervingly -- little altered by great age.
At his centenary lunch celebration, he quoted what he described as an old proverb: "To be happy for an hour, have a glass of wine. To be happy for a day, read a book. To be happy for a week, take a wife. To be happy for ever, make a garden." Ambrose Congreve was in London for the Chelsea Flower Show when he died on Tuesday night. His wife died in 1995, and there were no children of the marriage. He is survived by his companion of many years, his former secretary Geraldine Critchley.