Graham Thomas: the man who saved our gardens
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.
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 combined an artist's eye, outstanding plantsmanship and a knowledge of historic gardens when these skills were most needed "
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.
A lasting legacy
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 most significant examples of Graham Thomas's work in gardens.