Graham Thomas: the man who saved our gardens

Jacq Barber, Assistant Editor, Curatorial Content Online Jacq Barber Assistant Editor, Curatorial Content Online
Mottisfont rose garden in June, with Rosa 'Adélaïde d'Orléans' clambering over arches.

Graham Thomas (1909-2003) was one of the most important figures in 20th-century gardening. He received many horticultural accolades but it is his work for the National Trust for which he is most celebrated and remembered.

In rescuing some of the greatest gardens in Britain, in some cases from near dereliction, Graham Thomas helped shape our ideas about the traditional British garden. A passionate rosarian, he also saved many old rose varieties from extinction and contributed to their revived popularity.

The fragrant, yellow shrub rose which bears Graham Thomas's name
The fragrant yellow shrub rose, Rosa Graham Thomas
The fragrant, yellow shrub rose which bears Graham Thomas's name

A life in gardens

From the age of eight, Graham Thomas set his heart on a gardening career - it was to be a long and illustrious one. He left school at 16, becoming a student at Cambridge University's botanic garden, then moved to T. Hilling & Co., a nursery near Woking in Surrey, where he eventually became manager. 

By the early 1950s the National Trust was in need of a gardens adviser, having acquired some of the greatest gardens in Britain: Blickling, Stourhead, Cliveden, Powis, Hidcote and Bodnant among them. Many were in decline after the war years and following his appointment in 1955, Graham had to find a way of maintaining and improving them with few resources and funds. His intuitive understanding of historic gardens and the need for their planned conservation saved many from further decline and saw the restoration or recreation of others. 

During his 94 years, he published 20 books, often featuring his own botanical illustrations. He also introduced or rediscovered many garden plants, that without his intervention, might have been lost to cultivation. The history of British gardens and their plant collections would not have been the same without him.

Graham Thomas, the National Trust's first Gardens Adviser, next to Lonicera periclymenum 'Graham Thomas', the honeysuckle named after him
Graham Thomas, the National Trust's first Gardens Adviser, next to Lonicera periclymenum 'Graham Thomas', the honeysuckle named after him
Graham Thomas, the National Trust's first Gardens Adviser, next to Lonicera periclymenum 'Graham Thomas', the honeysuckle named after him
" Graham combined an artist's eye, outstanding plantsmanship and a knowledge of historic gardens when these skills were most needed "
- Mike Calnan, Head of Gardens, National Trust
The rose garden Graham Thomas designed for his collection of old roses at Mottisfont in Hampshire
The rose garden Graham Thomas designed for his collection of old roses at Mottisfont in Hampshire
The rose garden Graham Thomas designed for his collection of old roses at Mottisfont in Hampshire

Rescuing roses

Old roses were Graham's passion. While rose breeders were producing more showy hybrid teas and floribundas, Graham searched out the old, scented garden roses from around the world, choosing those best suited to the British climate. He wrote a trilogy of rose books in the 1950s and 60s, helping to bring old roses back into fashion. In the early 1970s, he found a permanent home for his rose collection in the walled garden at Mottisfont in Hampshire, creating one of the most celebrated and beautiful rose gardens to be found anywhere.

When he began working for the National Trust, Graham advised at just a handful of gardens. By the time he retired 18 years later, the number was approaching 100.

Below are some of the gardens where you can enjoy Graham Thomas's legacy.

One of the great herbaceous borders at Cliveden, designed by Graham Thomas

Cliveden, Buckinghamshire

Don’t miss Cliveden's contrasting ‘hot’-and-‘cool’-coloured herbaceous borders in the Getrude Jekyll style. In 1931, Graham Thomas cycled to Munstead Wood at Miss Jekyll’s invitation to have tea and a tour of her Surrey garden. The experience and her captivating colour schemes, had a lasting impression on his own gardening style.

The Red Borders at Hidcote in June

Hidcote, Gloucestershire

In 1948 Hidcote became the first National Trust property acquired on the strength of its garden alone and Graham Thomas did much to improve it following a period of decline after the war. He refined the colour schemes of Hidcote’s various ‘outdoor rooms’ and the Rose Walk and Red Borders are typical of his superbly crafted and detailed planting schemes.

The knot garden at Moseley Old Hall, copied from a 1640 design, was created by Graham Thomas

Moseley Old Hall, Staffordshire

In one of the earliest approaches to historic garden design, Graham Thomas reconstructed a small 17th century style garden on a derelict site, complete with a geometric knot garden in box (buxus), copied from a 1640s pattern. Only plants known to be in cultivation in the 1650s were used.

The walled rose garden with white foxgloves in the foreground.

Mottisfont, Hampshire

In 1972 the redundant walled garden at Mottisfont became a permanent home for Graham’s collection of historic roses. He’d been collecting roses for almost forty years, saving many varieties from extinction. He designed a simple but compelling scheme, combining roses with herbaceous and other plants to create a rose garden famed across the world.

Blue and yellow herbaceous planting at Wallington.

Wallington, Northumberland

At Wallington, Graham Thomas turned the derelict old walled garden into a series of contrasting herbaceous and shrub borders interspersed by informal lawns and ornamental trees, an orchard and pond. It was a classic example of his talent and flair for creating restrained elegance at a time when funds were limited.

Book cover of Roses and Rose Gardens by Claire Masset

Roses and rose gardens 

Discover more about our most famous rose gardens and roses in this lavishly illustrated book by Claire Masset