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Free «The Life of William Robert Guilfoyle» Essay Sample


In the nineteenth century, writer Rudyard Kipling coined a phrase: “Gardens are not made by singing “Oh, how beautiful!” and sitting in the shade” (Kipling n.d.). It was written in the century when William Robert Guilfoyle was creating his gardens that beautified Australia and inspired many landscape designers in different parts of the world. It is a challenge to recall all Guilfoyle’s professional areas of expertise. Apart from being a botanic gardens director and landscape designer, he also collected plants and occupied himself with sugar cane farming along with tobacco farming. The current paper documents the life of Guilfoyle and describes his work on gardens and parks. The paper presents an idea that William Guilfoyle made a significant contribution to the development of the Australian landscape.

Early Life and First Professional Experience

William Robert Guilfoyle was born on December 8, 1840, at Chelsea, England (Gross 1972). Gardens, one may say, were in Guilfoyle’s blood since his father Michael owned the Royal Exotic Nurseries in London’s King’s Road (Collier 2015). When Guilfoyle was thirteen years old, his family migrated to Sydney. Young William was tutored at home by his uncle Louis Delafosse. After home studies, Guilfoyle attended college (Lyndhurst in Glebe) and was recognized as a man of botanic and landscaping talents by his friends. The Lyndhurst College was the place where he got acquainted with a Scottish-naturalist John MacGillivray and a British entomologist and civil servant William Sharp Macleay. It was their advice that persuaded Guilfoyle to try himself in botanics.



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Traveling was an important part of Guilfoyle’s career that should not be underestimated. In 1868, he was a part of a scientific team of HMS Challenger. This presented him with an opportunity to travel around the Pacific Ocean, see the world, and discover new plants that could be cultivated in other places. The voyage was recorded by Guilfoyle in a series of sketches and a memoir account in the Sydney Mail. This trip brought Guilfoyle to the Tweed River Valley where he settled and started to breed and grow sugar cane and tobacco. There he met Ferdinand von Mueller, a German-Australian botanist, physician, and geographer who played a significant role in the professional life of William Guilfoyle. Guilfoyle made a good first impression on von Mueller who noticed the talent of Guilfoyle. Von Mueller even encouraged Guilfoyle to experiment with new things and develop his personal style. However, later von Mueller changed his opinion when Guilfoyle took his position as a director of a botanic garden. Before that happened, Guilfoyle had made a few trips to northern Wales and Queensland. The North had always fascinated Guilfoyle who anticipated finding new ideas there that could be incorporated in his further work. Another purpose of these tours was gathering of interesting specimens what were able to impress people. He sent some of them to Ferdinand von Mueller to be identified.

In the year 1873, Guilfoyle became the curator of the Royal Botanic Gardens in Melbourne. He was appointed to the office with a salary of £500 (Gross 1972). Curators of gardens right before Guilfoyle were John Dallachy and, as it has already been mentioned, von Mueller. His predecessors focused on gardens from a scientific point of view. Guilfoyle was more interested in developing aesthetic elements of gardens, making them both beautiful and comfortable. He paid attention to shadows and alleys near lakes that could be convenient during hot days. He also pursued the purpose of preservation of rare plants. That is why, the works of William Guilfoyle are distinguished among other designers.

With enthusiasm, Guilfoyle redesigned and extended the Royal Gardens. He used memories of wild and picturesque tropical landscapes that he had observed and partly recorded. He developed a conception of improving the existing landscape. The planting stage of the gardens included his colorful sketches that were later turned into reality in the remodeled gardens.

Home and Family

Guilfoyle married a woman named Alice in Melbourne in 1888. His family participated in his work by providing Guilfoyle with new territories to plant. Alice bought a land plot that was located on the river Street in Healesville. That was in the year 1893. The place with a residence on it was named Mr Yule. This name was given in accordance to the name of their son William James Yule Guilfoyle. The residence was a big house with about seven bedrooms. It is believed that the house was destroyed by fire (Collier 2015). It is because of Guilfoyle’s profession that many people presume that Guilfoyle designed his own garden.

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The unique style of Guilfoyle is rich in sub-tropical vegetation. It is considered to be his signature. Thus, Mr Yule was planted with exotic trees. Guilfoyle owned it for approximately ten years before he sold it in 1902. This was the period when he was a director of the Royal Botanic Gardens in Melbourne. Guilfoyle had to divide his time between job and home. It was difficult for him; nevertheless, the gardens were blossoming with success.

New Designs and Publications

Guilfoyle worked hard on his studies and shared his knowledge and inspiration with others. For example, he and Mueller gave public lectures in the Horticultural College (Aitken & Looker 2002). Guilfoyle published the information he gathered and processed in such works as: First Book of Australian Botany (1874) revised and reissued as Australian Botany Especially Designed for the Use of Schools (1878), The A.B.C. of Botany (1880), Australian Plants (1911), and many pamphlets (Gross 1972).

On account of months of travelling and scientific discoveries, by 1890 Guilfoyle managed to expand his design ideas with a combination of different plants that were mesmerizing. Collecting expeditions contributed immensely to his style. That is one of the reasons why Australian botanic gardens are so special. Stately gardens that are the image of England were completed with exotic sub-tropical plants, new for the audience. Among the flora used for gardens and parks, there were sprouts of exotic palms and pines, rockeries and shrubberies.

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There is no total account of the work done by William Guilfoyle. The records are not complete. For example, Guilfoyle created his own garden at weekender in Healesville, but not much is known about other territories that he may have arranged, for example, the Yarra Valley. Guilfoyle may also be the designer of such gardening spots as home of Dame Nellie Melba, Coombe Cottage in Coldstream (Collier n.d.). Some books that describe Guilfoyle’s works give information about this place because there was an architect drawing that was found with a definite marking on it. The marking was saying that a copy was supposed to be sent to Guilfoyle in the year 1911. This suggests that Guilfoyle could have a relation to Melba’s home or he could just discuss the topic with Melba. Traces of this story lead to uncertain directions. Some think that Melba acted upon her own design for the garden.

As to the work on the Yarra Valley garden, there is one known reference that partly confirms an assumption about Guilfoyle being its creator. The reference is The Oxford companion to Australian gardens. The entry presents a complicated story, according to which the property in Yarra Glen was known under the name Banool (Aitken & Looker 2002). It is stated that Guilfoyle’s designs were implemented there. In 1905, Banool was a property of Robert A. Ramsay. He purchased Banool as a weekender around the year 1875. Another part of the evidence that the designer was Guilfoyle was a letter written by Isabella, Ramsay’s wife. The letter was addressed to their son Robert in 1879. This letter is important because it contains a reference to William Guilfoyle who was supposed to come to Banool and consider details of tree planting there. This story of a detective genre continues with the information about death of Ramsay in 1882. Seven years later, Isabella and her two sons acquired another place in Victoria’s Western District – Mooleric and Turkeith. Still, Banool was kept as a weekender. There are more letters, which record that Isabella Ramsay and William Guilfoyle became friends. The friendship brought Guilfoyle work on two more gardens for Isabella. Presently, those gardens correspond to Guilfoyle’s plans of landscaping. Scholars who study landscaping believe that “plans held at the State Library of Victoria are evidence that Guilfoyle laid out the Ramsay’s garden at Mooleric in 1903” (Collier n.d., p. 88). Farm records of Turkeith include Guilfoyle’s list of various plants and written communications between Isabella and Guilfoyle with advice on how better to take care of seeds. Guilfoyle managed to send seeds to her by train. The two properties, namely, the Yarra Valley and Western District have similar planting that supports the idea that Guilfoyle had worked on Banool’s gardens. Specifically, Banool is a home to the first seeds that Guilfoyle had gathered in the botanic gardens. He sent those seeds to Isabella. This is confirmed by a letter written by Guilfoyle in 1903. People who visited Banool in the past describe similarities. For example, there is a Chilean wine palm that is “the finest specimen in Victoria Gardens” (Collier n.d., p. 89). There is also an immense Algerian oak. The state and age of the oak resemble the condition of the same kind of an Algerian oak at Mr Yule. A spiked cabbage tree is just like the one at Mooleric. It is a fact that Guilfoyle favored rockeries. Another fact is that there are still visible remains of rockery at Banool. Banool hosts a prickly Moses wattle that is an unusual plant for the gardens, but typical for Guilfoyle’s works. On the one hand, these small pieces of observation validate the theory about the authorship. On the other hand, this evidence cannot be trusted completely because many gardeners have copied designs of Guilfoyle. He was and still is an inspiration for many people.

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Details of his personal involvement (through letters and friendship) presumably mean that he was directly involved with the properties. The local paper that posted Guilfoyle’s obituary mentioned the plans that Guilfoyle designed for the rehabilitation of Queen’s Park in Healesville. It is said in the Gardeners’ Chronicle of the year 1894 that “Mr. Guilfoyle leaves everything to ramble at will – everything to be as though it happened” (Collier n.d., p. 89). We may believe that during his long years of work William Guilfoyle designed more parks than the ones officially registered. Still, one of his works is the world-known and recognized Royal botanic garden and it leaves no doubts that it was, metaphorically saying, shaped by the talented hands of Guilfoyle and his touch is still tangible.


Guilfoyle is a source of inspiration for other gardens. He also had his own moments of encouragement. Three elements are believed to be the source of Guilfoyle’s inspirational achievements.

The first element is an event that affected his life, as the story proves, in a positive way. It is about Guilfoyle’s immigration to Australia. This movement allowed him to incorporate a part of another mentality with his own. It was a priceless contribution. This union of cultures that existed in Guilfoyle’s mind was reflected in his works. For this reason, gardens created by William Guilfoyle are truly the objects of international significance.

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The second element finds its particularization in the circumstances of Guilfoyle’s life that relate to travelling. For example, he had a possibility to view all the beauty of botanic gardens in Sydney and around the Pacific Ocean. Travelling helped Guilfoyle to see and create things of really breathtaking beauty behind the knowledge and science.

The third element is the property that his family possessed near the Tweed River in Wales. It was in wild condition and it brought great pleasure to work there.

What is more, he also had a loving family and friends who supported his ideas and believed that he could bring something new and get a good result, especially by working hard.

The Royal Botanic Gardens, Melbourne

Creation of gardens is an art. Some believe that gardens are tangible reflections of written poems. The design of the Royal Botanic Gardens that was established on the basis of plants gathered by Baron F. Von Mueller could be inspired by Alexander Pope. As a proof, one suggests a statement, according to which “the basic principles laid down by Pope have been the framework upon which Guilfoyle designed his garden” (Braithwaite 1993, p. 5). The words are as follows:

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In all let nature never be forgot

But treat the Goddess like a modest fair,

Nor over-dress nor leave her wholly bare;

Let not each beauty ev'rywhere be spy'd

Where half the skill is decently to hide.

He gains all points who pleasantly confounds

Surprises, varies and conceals the bounds (cited in Braithwaite 1993, p. 5).

Ideas from the quote frame the landscape of the Royal Gardens. William Guilfoyle carefully approached the process of beautification of the garden. It was opened to the public in 1846. In the beginning, it was hard to choose the location of the garden. Mr. Hoddle, Surveyor-General, selected Spencer-street railway station in the year 1842 (Guilfoyle 1908). The place was not approved. Afterwards, in 1845 it was Dr. Nicholson who collected voices of more than three hundred citizens and applied with this petition with a requirement to establish the Botanic Garden as soon as possible. Then, the work started. Some have mistaken Guilfoyle for the founder of the gardens. The founder is Charles La Trobe. Guilfoyle started to work there much later. The first curator was Mr. John Arfhur. He developed the part of the gardens known as the Tennyson Lawn. It was the year 1873 when von Mueller left the position and Guilfoyle started his project of rearrangement of the gardens. After the Baron, Guilfoyle extended the grounds and almost entirely remodeled the area. It is especially significant in terms of new plantings. Guilfoyle brought his collection of exotic samples that reshaped the Royal Botanic Gardens. Magnificent sweeping lawns and informal vistas changed the place, which became almost a hundred acres bigger. In order to secure the place from floods, Guilfoyle remade a billabong into a number of lakes.

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Guilfoyle respected Charles La Trobe and even created a Temple of the Winds as a memorial to the founder. The temple was designed according to the classical tradition with the only difference that was the native staghound fern instead of the acanthus motif.

Public response was positive even among famous people. It was Paderewski who found the Royal Botanic Gardens to be his revelation. He expressed the thought that “Guilfoyle did with his trees what a pianist tried to do with his music” (Gross 1972, n.p.). Famous writers like Arthur Conan Doyle conveyed the idea about the gardens being “absolutely the most beautiful place” (Gross 1972).

Impact on Australian Landscape

Guilfoyle has influenced the world of landscaping in many ways. The most visible effects are the design of regional botanic gardens and some magnificent homestead gardens located in western Victoria (Saniga 2002). For instance, such known homesteads as Mooleric and Turkeith illustrate a whole set of palm trees and other plants that reflect Guilfoyle’s colonial experience. He shared his ideas in published works. Landscape designers today still read and find his thoughts inspiring. Thus, in Australian Plans Suitable for Gardens, Parks, Timber Reserves Etc, William Guilfoyle argues about the question of which plants should be used in gardens and parks. His position is clearly stated in the usage of Australian native plants in order to preserve what is already unique and beautiful (Guilfoyle 1911). In his book Australian Botany, Guilfoyle wrote with some regret about how little information was known about flora of Melbourne by its people (Guilfoyle 1884).

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Tress that he planted (the illustration may be seen in his books) are still growing in the Royal Botanic Gardens. This shows his skills and talent as a bright landscaper. Guilfoyle believed that the new generation of designer would preserve what is left and add something new. He recommended John Cronin as the next director of the gardens. The Botanic Gardens have become an important treasure in Australia.

William Robert Guilfoyle died on June 25, 1912. He was survived by Alice, his wife, as well as by his creations. His gardens are believed to bring England and Australia together in a way that Guilfoyle was influenced in his work by the heritage of his country of origin.


William Robert Guilfoyle, the famous landscape designer and botanist, figuratively saying, shaped “the green heart of Australia”. Guilfoyle had a dynamic life with a lot of travelling and movement involved. He was able to see exotic places and to show them to the public in his designs. His philosophy was based on the desire to preserve natural resources of Australia and combine them with new and unique samples of fauna. Guilfoyle managed to share his aesthetic views and scientific approach to landscaping in books and pamphlets that he published. These works have had a great influence on designers of the last century. His style has been copied and repeated in private gardens. This is one of the reasons why there is no total account of Guilfoyle’s works. Presently, his traditions are continued. The Royal Botanic Gardens vividly illustrate Guilfoyle’s style who has managed to combine different cultures and elements within one land plot in order to create a breathtaking place of international magnificence.


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