Student gardener, Kew, 1928–1933. Gardener, La Mortola, Italy, 1930. Gardener, Ospedaletti, Italy, 1934. Superintendent, Villa Taranto, Lake Maggiore, Italy, 1934–60. Horticultural and landscape consultant
b. Palmers Green, London, 3 July 1906; d. Venezia, Italy, 3 January 1995
The son of a doctor, Cocker became infatuated with gardening, and on leaving school he worked in a number of nurseries, including Carter Page at London Wall and Perry’s Hardy Plant Farm at Enfield. He entered Kew as a student gardener in December 1928, passing out in 1933.
Whilst at Kew he was awarded the Kew Certificate with a distinction in systematic botany, ecology and genetics. He was sent on a 15-month exchange to the Hanbury Garden at La Mortola, Italy, to gain experience in sub-tropical horticulture.
Following the end of his training at Kew, he returned to Italy and worked as a gardener at Ospedaletti, where he caught the attention of wealthy Captain Neil McEacharn. McEacharn had an estate, Villa Taranto at Lake Maggiore, and wanted a Kew-trained, Italian-speaking gardener to help him achieve his goal of creating his dream garden. Cocker oversaw the creation of the garden (which McEachern later bequeathed to the nation). Among his achievements was the first flowering in Europe of Davidia involucrata and Emmenopterys henryi.
During World War II Cocker enlisted in the RAF, serving in Libya, Egypt, South Africa, India and Ceylon. Wherever he went he was able to observe the local native flora. After the war he returned to Villa Taranto which had become greatly run down. Undeterred, and with a horde of staff, he set about restoring and expanding them into one of the great gardens of Europe. He remained there until 1960, earning a reputation as a garden designer. Following this he worked as a garden consultant for many celebrities and members of the European nobility, including Prince Borromeo, the Rockefeller Foundation, Peggy Guggenheim, Carlo Ponti and Sofia Loren, and HRH Princess Aspasia of Greece.
He was often called upon to give lectures and judge at horticultural shows, including Chelsea. For some years he was Technical Advisor to the Lombardy Horticultural Society, Milan
In 1950 he was awarded the Associate of Honour by the Royal Horticultural Society. He wrote a number of books and made many contributions to horticultural and other publications. Three contributions to The Journal of The Kew Guild are cited below. He was a paid-up life member of the Kew Guild.
The Archives at Kew hold materials about Cocker including correspondence, photographs, working papers, lecture notes, and autobiographical notes.
Cocker, H.R. (1936), Some impressions of Lake Maggiore and the Borromean Islands, The Journal of The Kew Guild 5: 544–550 (with a page of plates).
Cocker, H.R. (1945), Horticulture in India, The Journal of The Kew Guild 6: 376–383 (with three plates).
Cocker, H.R. (1949), Villa Taranto Gardens, Pallanza, Italy, Journal of The Kew Guild 6: 670–676 (with six plates).
Goodall, Nancy-Mary (1990), Cocker’s Italian Triumph, The Garden 115: 407–411.
Goodall, Nancy-Mary (1991), Henry Cocker and some contemporaries, Hortus 5: 20–31.