Prince Charles and Diana, Princess of Wales, came to Washington during their first United States trip as a couple in November 1985. There was overwhelming media attention at each appearance in the star-struck capital, which included the opening of the National Gallery of Art’s landmark exhibition, The Treasure Houses of Britain: 500 Years of Private Patronage and Art Collecting. President and Nancy Reagan held the glamour event, a dinner in the Royal couple’s honor at the White House that included various Hollywood stars.
At the British Ambassador’s Residence, where the pair stayed for the four days, one participant played an important, if largely unpublicized, role in the preparations: Sir John Rupert Hunt Thouron of Unionville, Pennsylvania.
Thouron (1907–2007), whose Second World War service included—but was not limited to—being an officer of the Black Watch Regiment, a Special Operations Executive at Bletchley (headquarters of the British code-breaking operations), and several parachute jumps behind German lines to aid prisoners of war. He came to settle in the homeland of his America-born father (who had been killed in the previous world war) in the 1950s. Thouron was knighted by the Queen during her Bicentennial visit to Philadelphia.
The transplanted Scotsman spent decades developing his internationally recognized gardens at his 220-acre estate and horse farm, Doe Run (acquired before 1960 as Glencoe Farms), in the Brandywine Valley of Pennsylvania. These included an Alpine and cottage gardens, wildflower pastures, and a perennial border near the house with almost 2,000 varieties of plants. A modest, private man, Thouron nevertheless let thousands (up to 5,000 annually) tour his spectacular and imaginative landscape each year, carefully explaining that the garden staff numbered only four, with two apprentices in the summer. Next to the stables he put in a low-maintenance perennial garden to encourage others to garden themselves.
An outstanding horticulturist, Thouron cultivated a myrtle standard from a sprig taken from the wedding bouquet of Queen Victoria, who had been attended by his grandmother. He was the first to produce a clear yellow lily, described as “one of the holy grails of the plant world” by White Flower Farm, which offered the ‘Clivia Sir John Thouron’ for $950 in its spring 1994 catalog. The nursery was able to obtain fewer than a hundred plants via Longwood Gardens (the great horticultural destination near his home) after careful negotiations and agreeing to donate some of the profits to a scholarship fund that Thouron, with his second wife, Esther duPont, established at the University of Pennsylvania for British-American Exchange.
During the ambassadorship of Sir Oliver and Lady Wright, he designed a new herbaceous border in 1984 at the Residence thought to be more suitable to the Lutyens design. That area was re-designed in 1986 by Ambassador and Sir Antony and Lady Acland and several times since. This is another instance of how gardening (that most ephemeral of arts) at the British Embassy is subject to the horticultural inclinations of each ambassador. Thus the extent of Thouron’s work in the gardens of the Embassy is not known, or perhaps buried in archives, waiting to be uncovered. He did have carefully thought-out herbaceous borders at his own estate, particularly along a 75-foot-long path, with some specimens not often seen in the United States, spilling out onto the stones, such as a fern-leaf verbena. Thouron collected cuttings from all over, including from the Royal family; he helped finance a friend’s 1978 expedition to China, and was rewarded with seeds of new rhododendron collected by Sir Peter Hutchison.
From his several greenhouses at Doe Run, which had extensive orchid and rare plant collections, Thouron was able to help fill the rooms of the Ambassador’s Residence with fresh flowers during the November 1985 Royal visit. The Embassy’s own gardener and greenhouses, along with the White House’s, also helped with the Ambassador’s black-tie dinner. It was during this stay that Prince Charles and Diana planted an American maple—Acer rubrum ‘Red Sunset’—in the Embassy gardens.
The dinner for Prince Charles and Diana was given at the Residence on 11 November. Attendees included Vice President George Bush, several Reagan Cabinet members (including Secretary of the Treasury James Baker) and intimates (Leonore Annenberg, former U.S. Ambassador to Great Britain; Michael Deaver, Armand Hammer), the head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (Admiral William Crowe), Benjamin Bradlee and Katherine Graham (The Washington Post), and various Senators and the House Majority Leader, James Wright. Amongst all the grand titles on the guest list was one “John Thouron, landscape architect, British Embassy.”
Christopher, Thomas. “Scotland of the Brandywine,” Horticulture, April 1989, p. 44-57.
Deitz, Paula. “Borrowed from Britain: from maze to hedgerow, every feature of the English garden has been adapted by Americans,” The New York Times, 14 April 1985.
“Doe Run,” Garden Club of America Bulletin, v. 79, no. 5, February 1991, p. 2-5.
Hall, Carla. “Putting up the Brits: upstairs & down, the Embassy prepares for today’s Royal visit,” The Washington Post, 9 November 1985, p. G1.
Higgins, Adrian. “A pretty flower for a pretty penny,” The Washington Post, 31 March 2011.
“Lieut. John Rupert Hunt Thouron.” Researched by Stephen Lewins.
Mitchell, Henry. “The posting of Sir Oliver Wright,” The Washington Post, 31 October 1982, p. G1.
Raver, Anne. “$950 lilies, but one to a customer, please,” The New York Times, 8 December 1994, p. C8.
“Sir John Rupert Hunt Thouron (1907-2007),” Thouron newsletter, Summer 2007, no. 16.
Varley, Elizabeth. The Du Pont family legacy of horticulture in the Brandywine Valley. University of Delaware thesis, Spring 1995.