Coming up roses
Almost every inch of space in rosarian Elizabeth Perks’s Somerset home is filled with rose-related memorabilia – and that’s on top of her collection of more than 550 rose-related books
Rosarian Dr Elizabeth Perks loves all things rose related and has built up a rose library of more than 500 books
The day I visit Dr Elizabeth Perks and her Rosarian Library in Somerset is a wet one. As I pull up the drive, I spot her at the window. The outline of her frame blurred by the rain. Inside, she guides me to take a seat in the living room. The fire is lit and the warm glow picks up lines of gilded book spines and ornate frames. As she makes tea, I take in the room. There are roses everywhere.
This is her winter rose garden. A collection of books, paintings, fabrics, ceramics and other rose memorabilia lovingly displayed throughout her house. The books started it all and Dr Perks has around 550 individual titles in total. She collects books dedicated solely to the rose and has scoured various rose bibliographies and catalogues from The British Library and RHS Lindley Library to hunt them down. She has now compiled a list of over 1,000 book titles and intends to acquire them all.
Her love of rose books, stems from a love of growing roses. A passion she inherited from her father who loved to grow red roses. She has one of his favourites, Rosa Papa Meilland (= ‘Meisar’) a deep-red, velvety hybrid tea rose, growing in her garden. Elizabeth once grew over 400 roses when she lived in France, selling home-grown flowers and other rosy items from her small business Toujours les Roses. Now, with limited outdoor space, she has turned her attention to collecting books about roses, rather than the flowers themselves. “I had an epiphany and thought I wouldn’t mind a few more rose books and so I got hooked, seeing how many I could find.” Many of her books were bought from the Royal National Rose Society. Others she picked up at second-hand book shops and internet sites.
Reading these books has led Elizabeth to go into researching rose literature full time and her favourites are those written in the 19th century. “It was a time when a lot of things came together that made it important that people wrote about roses.” She explains how imports from China, hybridised with European roses, gave a greater range of colours and an extended flowering time, and the people who had benefited from the agricultural and industrial revolution could buy homes with gardens and became interested in growing roses. This created a prime business opportunity and two great rosarian’s of the time, Thomas Rivers and William Paul, started to sell hybridised roses they had grown themselves.
Rosarians past and present are a source of huge inspiration for Elizabeth who admires the work that went into producing their books. “Some of these rosarians were out in the fields doing their
rose propagation and then they came in and wrote their books by hand. I think they were amazing,” she says. “Now we just type, we can delete and print off.”
Elizabeth has become well known in the rose world and is often asked to assist in other people’s research, most recently to find information on the roses Agatha Christie wrote about in her Miss Marple novels. She has also been approached by the National Trust which has asked her to look into Maud Messel and her involvement in the rose garden at Nymans’ in West Sussex. “I love when someone asks me to do an interesting piece of research.”
The history of the rose and rose stories captivate Elizabeth more than books on rose cultivation. When I ask her to choose her 12 favourite books, I press her, to narrow it down to just one. “Immortal Roses by Jean Gordon,” she replies. “I love it because I didn’t realise anything like it had been printed. It’s just a lot of little rosy stories and one of the stories is about her rose museum.” As we go through some of the other books in her library, Elizabeth comments on the beauty of the covers, the handwriting and the delicate spines and wax slips that cover the botanical illustrations within the pages. She appreciates every little detail and it’s clear the research and her collection has become her reason to be.
It seems eccentric, but there is a strong sense of purpose in what Elizabeth does. “It’s such an interesting subject and I feel it needs to be documented,” she explains. “To me it’s part of our social history and our heritage.”
I venture back out into the grey light of the day, wishing that instead of a long drive home I could spend the rest of the afternoon next to Elizabeth’s fire with my nose in a book.
USEFUL INFORMATION Visits to Elizabeth’s Rosarian Library are by appointment only, but you can find information on many aspects of rose research through her website therosarianlibrary.co.uk
Above lef t to right Rose trinkets fill Elizabeth’s shelves – although when younger she hated them. Elizabeth with a fraction of her rose book collection. Many paintings of roses line the walls of Elizabeth’s home.