Graham Stuart Thomas
Gardener, writer, poet, artist, designer, adviser, devotee of old roses, gentleman, Graham Stuart Thomas was just six when he first fell in love with plants and the wonderful world of gardening. He said “My Godfather gave me a large-flowered Fuchsia. . .which set me on my earthly career.”
He was born in Cambridge where he also studied at the Cambridge University Botanic Garden where he learnt the history and classical design of gardening. There he discovered the canvas which was to inspire him for the rest of his life with its160 year old collection of plants. On the completion of his formal education he moved with the collective knowledge from his gardening parents and his college to the world of commerce as a nurseryman. All the while he kept writing his diary which was to prove the source of many articles and books.
It was during his time at the 300 acre nursery, Hillings that he came in contact with the formidable Gertrude Jekyll, when he was a mere lad of 22 and she a venerable 88. There she instructed him to pick any leaf, bring it to her and she would instruct him over a cup of tea. Perhaps Gertrude further cemented the pathway which would take him eventually in 1974 to be the adviser to the Historic Places Trust. The artist in Thomas responded to the artistic Gertrude who instilled in him gardening as an art with its vast array of colour, style, shapes and textures.
He moved to a partnership at Sunningdale Nurseries one of the most revered in the country in 1956, where he became known for his planting schemes but more importantly as a rosarian where he started his collection of old garden roses. Together with rosarians Beales and Austin and Russell he turned the country's eyes toward the grace and charm of the old garden rose. And so in the mid 1950s these foundation roses once again became fashionable and therefore saved from extinction. In his Sunningdale catalogue ‘The manual of Shrub Roses’ he says ‘It is amazing to me, when one considers the march of events in rose breeding during the last 150 years, how the roses of to-day owe almost their entire popularity to the splendid H.Ts and Floribundas. Their beauties are well appreciated and almost indispensible in the garden and house. And yet they represent but a small part of the beauties offered by the genus. In the search for new colours much has been lost. Many and varied are the splendid roses that have been neglected by gardeners for the last 75years owing to the great influx of new hybrids. This manual seeks, as have my earlier booklets and writings, to bring forth these lovely things from retirement, into the modern garden, which to-day offers just the place for these splendid flowering shrubs.’ His further comments later in his introduction in the manual seems to me to be to be a gentle and eloquent plea for them, ‘These ‘Shrub Roses’ then, as they are now rightfully called, have come into their own as splendid garden furnishings, of equal or greater value to the flowering shrubs of other genre which have such a hold on the gardens of to-day. Shrubs give much and ask for little in the daily garden round, and the shrub roses give as much as any.’
His formidable knowledge of old roses, their history, classification and growth was passed on in a trilogy: The Old Shrub Rose, Shrub Roses of Today and Climbing Roses Old and New, complete with his own sketches. Vita Sackville- West, herself a notable gardener and writer noted in the foreword to Old Shrub Roses: ‘Some old roses demand an acquired taste before they can be appreciated as being a far quieter and more subtle thing than the highly coloured hybrid teas, polyanthas and floribundas of the modern garden.’
By 1948 the National Trust had begun had begun to get really established with the acquisition of its first garden and Thomas began what was to prove and long relationship. He was appointed their gardens’ adviser in 1955 and he set about revitalising the Trust’s gardens, reintroducing plants long forgotten, designing with the eye of a designer and artist who understood the importance of shapes, colour and texture in the garden. Not content with the visual palette he continued writing books (16) and articles. In ‘The Art of Planting’ he wrote ‘Whether you look upon gardening as a hobby, a science or an art, the fundamental point returns again and again: that we garden because of the beauty of plants.’
He was responsible for over 100 National Trust’s gardens and his fine hand can be seen in them all. He can claim the revitalisation of Hidcote Manor and Sissinghurst Castle but his most notable achievement however was Mottisfont Abby where he was able to plant his collection of old roses. This garden was to prove his visual masterpiece with strong design, love and knowledge of plants and roses and his genius for combing them all into perfection. Here he spent his last days, observing, helping, dispensing knowledge in that gentlemanly way of the retired professional. In the foreword to Thomas’ book, ‘Gardens of the National Trust’, the Earl of Rosse says, ‘Graham Thomas properly calles attention to the danger, as a result of so many gardens being in one ownership, of their ‘having the stamp of the Trust’; …he holds strongly to the belief, as I do, that each garden should, as far as possible, retain its own special flavour and also the personality bestowed on it by its creators’. Such was Graham Stuart Thomas’ genius. Thomas describes his collection of old roses housed in the grounds of the abbey with much love – ‘…the roses pomp will be displayed far into the future at Mottisfont, where my work of some thirty years collecting these varieties together from France, Germany, and the United States, and numerous gardens and nurseries in the British Isles will not be set to naught. Enshrined in the garden there will be memories of those who treasured them when their cause seemed forlorn.’
He was acknowledged in his own time – not for him the accolades only after his death. He was awarded an OBE for his work with the Historic Places Trust, the Victoria Medal of Honour, Veitch Memorial Medal, Royal Horticulture Society Gold Medal, the Dean Hole Medal by the National Rose Society, and the Garden Writers’ Award for Lifetime Achievement.
He remained unmarried, wedded to his roses perhaps and died at Mottisfont aged 94 in 2003. The head gardener of Mottisfont at that time, David Stone, announced his death ‘It is with great sadness I have received the news of Graham’s passing away, on the night of the 16th of April. I feel a great sense of personal loss which, I know, will be shared by you. The garden is in mourning but the roses still bloom.’
The collection of old shrub roses at Mottisfont Abbey is a tribute to the memory of not only Graham Stuart Thomas but also to the memory of the many gardeners who had an influence on the survival of these hardy old fashioned gems.
The Rose Graham Thomas
‘Charles Austin x (Iceberg x unknown English Rose)
It is very fitting that the modern rose Graham Thomas should have pride of place at Mottisfont Abbey amid the gardens of the old varieties as he is intrinsically linked with their survival and popularisation.
Graham Thomas is one of the best English Roses with blooms of the clearest bright yellow – a rich, pure yellow, and a colour unknown in the old rose colours which Thomas so cherished. It is therefore perhaps an unusual colour to honour Thomas but it is certainly one which would never be missed in the garden standing tall and proud displaying its finery in the border. With flowers deeply cupped, and petals loosely within, it is unlike the more traditional style of the old rose with its many petals. The blooms appear in clusters, flowering in sequence which has the additional joy of seeing blooms from the tight bud, various stages of becoming open to the final full openness displaying its sepals- all at the same time.
It has a strong tea fragrance, is very strong and here in New Zealand will grow into a small well behaved climber. It glows with sunshine well into the winter and is a worthy rose for such a worthy man.