Raoul Robillard (1897-1981)

Raoul Robillard (1897-1981) was a landscape designer credited with designing a significant portion of the Sunken Garden.

He is mentioned frequently in Chapter 5 of our Butchart Gardens History. Here is an excerpt:

“…..Another professional designer Jennie Butchart hired was Raoul Robillard (1897-1981), who is credited with designing the western side of the Sunken Garden. Although Raoul Robillard moved to Vancouver in 1946 and became best known as one of the Lower Mainlaind’s leading landscape architects, he had started his career in Victoria. Raoul’s father, Arthur Robillard (1870-1934), was a master gardener who had learned his trade in France before immigrating to Canada with his family in 1908 and settling in Victoria in 1910.

The Robillard family- Arthur, his wife Elia and their two teenaged sons, Raoul and Andre- had some initial difficulties finding a place to live in Victoria. Raoul recalled that their first accommodation was “the screened off hallway of an apartment on the top end of Douglas [Street]”. Arthur Robillard found work as a gardener while Elia began a catering business. Thirteen year old Raoul “got a job on the carpet floor of Weiler’s furniture store” (then located in the Weiler Building, which still stands at the south east corner of the intersection of Government Street and Broughton Street). At the time Raoul worked there, Weiler Brothers Ltd. was Victoria’s largest home furnishings store, with a clientele that included many of Victoria’s leading citizens. One day, Raoul sold some carpeting to Margaret McBride, wife of British Columbia’s Premier Sir Richard McBride, for the McBrides’ house at 219 Gorge Road. Somehow their conversation turned to landscaping and Raoul apparently took the opportunity to mention his father’s business to Mrs. McBride.

If Raoul was promoting his father’s business to Margaret McBride, his efforts worked. Arthur Robillard was soon engaged to landscape the McBrides’ new property on the Gorge. The McBrides were impressed with his work and began recommending the French gardener to friends. On the McBrides’ recommendation, Arthur Robillard soon found his services in demand among some of Victoria’s leading families- including the Pembertons (615 St. Charles St. and 1652 Wilmot Place), the Rithets (1229 Rockland Ave. and “Hollybank”, 952 Humboldt St), the Arbuthnots (“Robleda”, 1337 Rockland Ave.), the Agnews (“Schuhuum”, 1322 Rockland Ave.) and the Kers (“Kershaugh” at the north east corner of Yates St. and Fernwood Ave.) – most of whom lived in the upscale neighbourhoods of Rockland and south Oak Bay.

Arthur Robillard soon developed a large and loyal clientele among Victoria’s wealthier citizens but he had one major problem; he spoke little English and, as a result, often found it difficult to communicate with his clients. Arthur Robillard solved this problem by bringing his teenaged son, Raoul, to worksites as a helper and an interpreter. Working alongside his father in the gardens of wealthy clients, Raoul Robillard demonstrated a talent for garden design which was soon spotted by one of Victoria’s leading architects, Samuel Maclure.

Impressed by Raoul’s talent as a designer and by Arthur’s skill as a gardener, Maclure began helping the Robillards. In 1911 or 1912, Samuel Maclure took Raoul Robillard on as a part-time articling student in landscape architecture in Maclure’s busy downtown firm, an arrangement that apparently lasted until 1917. Years later, Raoul Robillard recalled that Maclure would frequently stand over Raoul’s desk, patiently explaining principles of landscape design. Often, Maclure loaned reference books to his student to take home and read.[2] Maclure helped Arthur Robillard by recommending the French gardener to his clients. Among Samuel Maclure’s clients were the Butcharts. On Maclure’s recommendation, Arthur and Raoul Robillard began working for Jennie Butchart at Benvenuto. Raoul Robillard is credited with landscaping the western side of the Sunken Garden, which still follows Robillard’s original design……”

The Vancouver Portland Cement Company plant (right) above the west side of the Sunken Garden and the Mound, circa 1910. This section of the Sunken Garden was designed by Raoul Robillard. (City of Victoria Archives photo M05821)
The Vancouver Portland Cement Company plant (right) above the west side of the Sunken Garden and the Mound, circa 1910. This section of the Sunken Garden was designed by Raoul Robillard. (City of Victoria Archives photo M05821)

Here are some historic postcards showing the Mound and the west side of the Sunken Garden that Raoul Robillard is credited with designing:

Postcard showing the Sunken Garden Mound, circa 1920's. (Author's collection)
Postcard showing the Sunken Garden Mound, circa 1920’s. This section of the Sunken Garden was designed by Raoul Robillard. (Author’s collection)
Postcard showing the Sunken Garden Mound, circa 1925-1930. (Author's collection)
Postcard showing the Sunken Garden Mound, circa 1925-1930. This section of the Sunken Garden was designed by Raoul Robillard. (Author’s collection)
Postcard showing the Sunken Garden Mound, circa 1960's. (Author's collection)
Postcard showing the Sunken Garden Mound, circa 1960’s. This section of the Sunken Garden was designed by Raoul Robillard. (Author’s collection)

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