Tried & True

Graham Stuart Thomas: Joy in the Making

Patsy Cunningham

I started this series on historical rosarians with the Reverend S. Reynolds Hole, a gardener who delighted in roses for growing and exhibiting.  In his life, gardening was rose gardening, no other plant excited his eye and heart.  Rosarians though are as diverse as the roses they grow and have wide-ranging interests.

 Graham Stuart Thomas is a good example of this.  Best known to the rose world for his collecting and popularizing of antique and modern shrub roses; he is known to the broad gardening world for his encyclopedic knowledge of  perennial plants, his historical garden restorations and his artworks. 

 He wrote over 20 books and illustrated many of them himself, including ‘The Graham Stuart Thomas Rose Book’.  In fact, it was an ink drawing of the fine hybrid moyesii shrub rose “Nevada” that kindled my interest in all his work. 

It was drawn accurately, but with tremendous grace, and simplified where desirable to better show the shape of the leaves.  His watercolors were also notable.  Another plate in the above book shows a collection of stems with rosehips in all their diversity of shape and color and thorn.  Most of the watercolors in this book are of OGRs, painted and labeled with care. His whole family was inclined to art.  His father’s beautiful study of Rosa canina in colored chalks can be found on the endpapers of the book with the complete collection of his drawings and paintings, while a lovely butterfly in watercolors by his mother appears in the same book.  Despite his many talents, he did not succumb to conceit. He was somewhat self-deprecating about his paintings, saying they were best seen as small illustrations in books so their imperfections would not be noted.  He didn’t feel he was a professional painter, he described his goal in painting by quoting Robert Bridges, “I too will something make, and joy in the making’.

He valued accuracy and beauty in illustrating roses and other plants.  There is a distinguished work called The Genus Rosa by Ellen Willmott, published in parts between 1900-1914, that was beautifully illustrated by Alfred Parsons.  It could not be enjoyed by the general public due to its huge size in two volumes and its enormous cost. (It can be seen by appointment at the Barrington Public Library.)  Thomas helped publish a collection of these watercolour illustrations in an affordable book, called A Garden of Roses.  The colors are actually more true to the original watercolors than the reproductions in Miss Willmott’s work.  I suspect that part of the reason he began illustrating was so that others could later identify with accuracy some of the older varieties of roses he was re-introducing to the public.  He found that over the years, some roses naturally become known by many names but also one rose name could become associated with more than one variety, causing confusion.  He spent much time, for example, researching the old Musk Rose.  He determined that what was called the Musk Rose by Shakespeare and other poets was R. Arvensis, not R. Moschata.  He wrote that the musk rose of botanical gardens and presently being sold as R. Moschata  is a “nearly glabrous form or hybrid of R. brunonii. Just when and where it originated and usurped the position of the Old Musk Rose is still a mystery to me. Willmott's portrait appears to be of this usurper, with its long drooping leaves.”  Finally, with much sleuthing, he was able to find what he felt was the true Old Musk rose, with its fall flowering and unique scent, at the garden of the late E.A. Bowles. He found it matched the Redouté illustration as well. This musk he found is now known as the Graham Thomas Old Musk and is grown at Ashdown Roses (search their “library” page online), though it is not being presently propagated.  It is a species rose, though the ARS categorizes it as a hybrid musk.  The most recent DNA research published in the 2004 Rose Annual, proved that the 3 commonly known forms of Rosa Moschata, though so different in appearance, all originally came from one original plant.

He first started collecting old climbers and shrubs around 1955 and planted a large collection of them at Mottisfont Abbey, one of his National Trust gardens.  This group of pre-1900 roses became the National Collection of Roses.  An assemblage of his roses can be found at the Royal National Rose Society’s garden in St Albans also.  He reintroduced a number of roses including the centifolia ‘Robert le Diable’ and a now popular gallica ‘Belle de Crécy’.  “The Graham Stuart Thomas Rose Book” is a reprinting and revision of his three major works on shrub and climbing roses.  It describes in detail the majority of old garden roses, climbers and ramblers, and the modern shrubs of his day.  It contains is a wealth of information not otherwise easily found.  For example, when discussing the species rose, R. moyesii, he not only describes its history and appearance, but also all of its selected garden forms and hybrids.  R. moyesii, with its distinctive blood red roses, can become an enormous and somewhat gaunt shrub.  He instead recommends the more compact form called ‘Geranium, with its larger hips and full foliage. He takes the time to list where illustrations of many of the listed roses may be found in major rose books.  There is a large section illustrated with supports for training and displaying climbers, as well as with charts for choosing the climber appropriate to your situation. His preference for the older climbers, ramblers, and sprawling species roses, was to avoid man made supports.  Such roses looked better growing into trees, or over deep green yew hedges. 

He firmly believed in planting roses together with other companion plants, to “provide contrast and complement”.  He felt that if roses were to be grown on man-made arches, the addition of grape vines with large contrasting leaves, like Vitis vinifera ‘Pupurea’ or ‘Black Cluster’, would form a beautiful backdrop.  Since blue cannot be found in roses, it was his frequent choice of color for mixed planting. Suggestions included lavenders, buddleias, echinops, sages, delphiniums and some of the climbing clematis.  He avoided plants that were similar in color to roses, “unless the contrast in size, texture and shape was sufficient” such as in hollyhocks or lilies.  He was certainly able to suggest a broad range of companion plants, as he possessed an encyclopedic knowledge of both flowering and foliage plants.  He wrote a comprehensive book on perennials – “Perennial Garden Plants: Or the Modern Florilegium”.  This massive work examines more than 2000 perennials for today’s gardens.  He often compared the colors and textures in gardens to their musical counterparts.  Rich, saturated dark colored flowers are needed to provide the bass notes in the garden.  He felt the garden would be insipid if all the flowers were pastels, and that these “bass notes” were indispensable when used sparingly.  (Musical references did not just come from theory, he had a fine tenor voice and sang madrigals with a group.)  Some of his favorite deep colored roses included the gallicas ‘Tuscany’ and ‘Charles de Mills’,  the healthy floribunda ‘Dusky Maiden’ and the shade loving hybrid perpetual ‘Souvenir du Dr. Jamain.  Other recommended dark flowers mentioned are the clematis like C. viticella ‘Royal Velours’ and daylilies like hemerocallis ‘Stafford’.  Dark foliage plants can be important not only for their contrast of color but also as a living mulch.  He suggests Ajuga reptans ‘Atropupurea’ and ‘Palace Purple’ heuchera.  These foliage plants work particularly well with white flowers, intensifying their brightness.

Graham Stuart Thomas (1909-2003) loved gardening since his youth, starting out with a fuschia plant at the age of 6.  He worked from age 16 as an unpaid worker in the rock gardens at the Cambridge University Botanic Gardens so that he could attend the university’s botany lectures free of charge.  Even at that age, he kept detailed notebooks and diaries of the plants he worked with.  He then found work with a nursery and would bicycle regularly in his free time to the famous Kew Gardens and the RHS garden at Wisley.  By 1955 he was appointed as Gardens Advisor to the National Trust.  It was in this position that he helped restore sixty of Britain’s historic gardens.  His successor as Gardens Advisor to the Trust, John Sales, said that Graham Stuart Thomas invented gardening at historic houses.  There had been no conserved old gardens in the 1950s, Thomas worked to preserve the structure of those gardens while realizing that gardens had to change over time.  His awards for this work and his influence on modern British gardening and horticulture include the Victoria Medal of Honour, the Order of the British Empire, the Veitch Memorial Medal , and the Dean Hole Medal for his work with roses.  His most public and lasting honor though, was having an “English” rose bred by David Austin named after him.  ‘Graham Thomas’ is a rich golden yellow cupped flower, borne on a healthy tall shrub.  It is fortunate that it has a strong ‘tea’ fragrance, as Graham Stuart Thomas felt strongly about fragrance in roses.  “Had the rose been a flower of complete insignificance, this inherent yet extractable odour would have ensured its being cultivated.”


References: Books by Graham Thomas-‘A Garden of Roses’,’The Graham Stuart Thomas Rose Book’, ‘The Complete Flower Paintings and Drawings of Graham Stuart Thomas’, ‘Cuttings From My Garden Notebook’. Also RHS Journals online, Wikipedia online, New York Times.




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Date last edited: 01/21/10
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