In 1976, Queen Elizabeth arrived on the HMY Britannia to visit six of the original thirteen colonies and to take part in some of the festivities for the Bicentennial of the American Revolution. In order not to appear to be “pushing it,” for “forgiveness can go so far,” according to an Embassy spokesman, the yacht docked at Penn’s Landing in Philadelphia two days after the July 4th birthday. She came to Washington, of course, and held a dinner on 8 July for President Ford at the Embassy.
Chief gardener Roger Birch at the Ambassador’s Residence was interviewed by the Washington Post’s columnist and sometime garden writer Henry Mitchell, who gave this account:
As it turned out, the embassy had relied on expert advice from the Men’s Garden Club of Montgomery County on how to insure full bloom for the queen’s visit, and they had said cut the bushes back to wood of pencil thickness, give each bush a handful of fertilizer such as 5-10-5 lightly scratched in, and water madly for one month.
All this was done only a month before the reception, and a great deal of faith was necessary at the time. The bushes looked awful, all butchered, and the embassy wondered if there would be any leaves for the party, let alone flowers …
Fortunately the timing was perfect and nobody would believe the sight (for Washington in July is not the greatest season for roses, being sacred to Japanese beetles then).
Mitchell further wrote:
The Japanese garden in the distance (to which all gardeners moved, expecting perhaps to have their worst fears confirmed, since such gardens often look silly) was perfectly fine, and the important thing about it was its scale, with several very large dwarf conifers and a careful counter play of textures and bulks. This is a great favorite of the ambassador’s and one is happy to say it does not in the least give the impression that they are going to sell jasmine tea for a dime inside.
This article on the preparation of the gardens, including the lawn, before the Queen’s visit irritated the head gardener so much that he wrote a startling and biting letter to the editor criticizing the reporting (Washington Post, 29 July 1976):
To give credit where credit is due, the advice I sought and received concerning the handling of the roses was from Mr. J. Benjamin Williams of Silver Spring, Md., the well-known rose expert who had produced several All American roses, the ultimate achievement to which all serious breeders aspire.
… Mr. Mitchell has employed that petty yet overused tactic of telling the reader just how very miserable the results of a particular effort can be before he actually tells the reader that the results were, at least, acceptable. It is lamentable that Mr. Mitchell has become so jaded by viewing beautiful gardens that he finds such a style of reporting appropriate. In the end, the inference of the article is that the success of the garden was left very much to chance. Obviously Mr. Mitchell is not familiar with English preparation for a royal visit. The only thing left to chance is the weather. But then, I’m rather prejudiced, especially when it comes to Her Majesty’s Garden at the British Embassy. After all, I work there.
Later, Mitchell safely avoided the subject in the wonderfully gossipy book (with a foreword by none other than Gore Vidal), Washington: houses of the Capital. President Ford had headed to the Embassy early, before the Queen, and his motorcade was told to circle a block until his hostess was in place. The Post reporter only mentions “crimson roses” decorating the place but that “A lone bagpipe played slow haunting tunes towards mid-night and people cried and said it was the most beautiful official party they ever went to or ever heard of. The cat [Bluffy] behaved fairly well.” The Scottish piper leaned up against a still-blooming magnolia.
Five thousand roses, donated by the American Rose Society, also decorated all the ballroom tables set for the dinner. However, the blooms at the head table were only from the Ambassador’s Residence gardens. There, a reception for 1,600 followed the formal dinner.
It was Sir Peter and Lady Ramsbotham (1974-77) who had the Japanese garden added near the boundary with the back gardens of the private houses of Whitehaven Street. But it appears that roses were the Ambassador’s preoccupation. Sir Peter had the bushes sprayed every day against blackspot, stem canker and mildew. His obituary in The Times (London), in highlighting his career, declared: “Not the least of his achievements was to persuade all the roses in the embassy gardens to bloom in unison for the Queen’s visit to the US in 1976 for the bicentennial celebrations” (13 April 2010).
A throw-away line or perhaps a poignant one, since Ramsbotham had a demoralizing recall from Washington when Peter Jay, youthful son-in-law to Prime Minister Jim Callaghan, was installed in his place. Still, it is an indication how prominent and important the gardens have always been, and continue to be, to the British Embassy. In an earlier interview upon arriving in Washington (14 April 1974), Ambassador Ramsbotham carefully pointed out that while gardening was a hobby for him it was “real gardening, including the physical digging part.”
During the six-day visit (11 July), the Queen planted in the garden a European beech (Fagus sylvatica), near the one that her sister had dug a spade-full of dirt for in 1965. Nearby, seen at the end of the vista from the Portico terrace, was a Henry Moore bronze, on loan. Also in place for the Royal visit was Dame Elisabeth Frink’s bronze sculpture, Lying Down Horse (Government Art Collection, 1974).
The following year, on 16 June 1977, was the last annual Royal birthday party, with Princess Anne in attendance. For economic reasons, garden parties celebrating the Queen’s birthday were thereafter held only once, at most, during the tenure of an ambassador. Funds for entertaining, even for this Silver Jubilee party, were so scarce at the time that employees donated their own entertainment allotments for the party’s expenses. Hence the invitations came from: “Her Britannic Majesty’s Ambassador and Lady Ramsbotham together with the staff of the British Embassy.” Sir Peter was soon to leave for Bermuda, assuming the post of Governor.
Notes and Bibliography
The Queen and Prince Philip stayed at the official guest house of the President, Blair House, during the Washington part of their trip.
Other notable events for the Embassy during the decade of the 1970s were the addition of the Ambassador’s Residence to the National Register of Historic Places (26 November 1973) and the publication by the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts, Massachusetts Avenue architecture (1975), that contained a one-page horticultural index (the first known inventory of the gardens). Apparently, for there is in existence a plaque commemorating the event, a group of American friends of Esme Cromer replanted the rose garden in 1972 in her honor.
Charlton, Linda. “For the British Embassy, the last big bash is over,” The New York Times, 17 July 1977.
Maclean John. “All’s prim and proper for the Queen’s visit,” Chicago Tribune, 8 July 1976, p. B4.
McLellan, Diana. “He’s unflappable, she’s an English rose,” Washington Star-News, 14 April 1974.
Mitchell, Henry. “Gin and roses,” The Washington Post, 20 June 1974.
___________. Washington: houses of the Capital. New York: The Viking Press, 1982, p. 91. Photographs by Derry Moore.
___________. “Washington’s English garden,” The Washington Post, 18 July 1976, p. 143.