A Morning with Graham Stuart Thomas
Graham Thomas posed for Susan Donley in his garden, with his namesake rose in the background, and in his lapel.
IN JUNE OF 2001, Graham Thomas welcomed my friend Susan Donley and me into his home, Briar Cottage, with warmth and twinkling, pale blue eyes. After we told him how gorgeous Mottisfont* looked earlier that week, he began to speak about his career.
"I never hybridized, I was too busy. I was a part-time nurseryman at Sunningdale for 20 years while working for the National Trust. I took over seven gardens to begin with. When I had 110 gardens, I told them, 'It's about time you give me an assistant.'"
Graham spoke of Mrs. Maud Messel's garden at Nymans in West Sussex as one of only five or six gardens where the old roses were treasured and looked after.
He told us that "white roses, even though they don't have the popular appeal of colored roses, are important in the structure of a garden." He mentioned MME. HARDY as an unsurpassed favorite, and that "it does very well at Mottisfont."
With amusement, he told us how he tried to get a picture of the white rambler that he named BOBBIE JAMES. "I went around the garden with the widow of the honorable Robert James. Her husband knew the rose as an 'unknown' from his childhood. I asked if I could take a few pictures. She said, 'Yes, where would you like me to stand?'"
Graham gave us a tour of his own garden saying, "We had a sopping winter, then it stopped raining punctually on April 30 with not a drop since." He told us his roses die of honey fungus because his property is on the site of an old kitchen garden. However, Gallicas coursed through his garden beds, and SOUVENIR DE ST. ANNE'S, MLLE. CÉCILE BRUNNER, PAUL TRANSON, and the rare Rosa stellata mirifica, among others, served Graham with blooms.
On our departure, Susan and I both felt close to tears. Not only had we visited with a man important to the history of roses, but at 92, Graham Thomas touched us with his vitality and joy of life. As we drove away, it began to rain.
*Mottisfont Abbey is a 13th century former priory located in Hampshire, England. Beginning in the 1970's, Graham Thomas transformed two sections of a three-part, walled kitchen garden into a stunning showcase for his collection of over 300 heritage roses.
LAURÉ DAVOUST climbs an arch amongst a lush planting of roses and perennials at Mottisfont.
In the background, the bower is planted with Ramblers BLUE MAGENTA and DEBUTANTE.