Partner Sholto Douglas, Thomas Henry Lyon

Queer Places:
University of Oxford, Oxford, Oxfordshire OX1 3PA
The Italian Garden at Great Ambrook, east of Great Ambrook Avenue, Great Ambrook, Ipplepen, Newton Abbot
St. Andrew Churchyard Ipplepen, Teignbridge District, Devon, England

Arthur Smith Graham (July 29, 1871 - January 23, 1928) bought Great Ambrook in 1899 with the adjacent farm, Newhouse Barton, aged just 28. In 1909 he commissioned his friend and architect, T.H. Lyon, to design the garden built on the farmland. Graham was a man of considerable means and an aesthete, moving in an intellectual Oxbridge literary circle. He appears, his identity thinly veiled, in the novel “Nicholas Crabbe; A Romance” by the cult author of the period, Frederick Rolfe.

Arthur Smith Graham was the son of Christopher North Graham and Isabella McAndrew. His siblings were: Percy North Graham and Margaret Amy Graham. Arthur Graham, whose parents came from wealthy merchant families, grew up in Surrey and Kent. He moved to Devon, having read classics at Christ Church, Oxford, without graduating, buying Great Ambrook in 1899 together with the adjacent farm of Newhouse Barton. It may be that his move to the secluded Devon property, and his creation of the enclosed garden there, was connected with his homosexuality. Graham appears, his identity thinly veiled, in the novel 'Nicholas Crabbe: A Romance' by the cult author Frederick Rolfe (or 'Baron Corvo'). The novel sees Theophanes Clayfoot (Graham) steal the affections of Robert Kemp (Graham's close friend, the poet and author Sholto Douglas) from Crabbe (Rolfe), and transport him to Sonorusciello, the idyllic Cornish estate which represents Great Ambrook. Evidence regarding Graham's life at Great Ambrook, and the form and features of the garden itself, appear consistent with the idea that the garden was created as a setting for a form of social life and recreation which would not otherwise have been possible in the early years of the C20.

Arthur Smith Graham purchased Great Ambrook in the beginning of the C20 and employed a local architect, Thomas Henry Lyon to design a music room which extended the Georgian house considerably. Thomas Lyon is an architect of national importance, being the first Director of Design at the School of Architecture at Cambridge University and the designer of Sidney Sussex College Chapel.  

Arthur Smith Graham was an aesthete of considerable means. The garden that Thomas Lyon designed and built for him between 1909 and 1912 was in the spirit of the age and one can see some links with the style of Harold Peto. Interestingly, Arthur Graham’s brother had commissioned Ernest George to build Busbridge Hall in Surrey in 1906 and employed Gertrude Jekyll to produce some garden designs, while his brother-in-law commissioned W. F. Unsworth and H. Inigo Triggs to design and build his house and garden, which included a small walled Italianate section, at Ashford Chace in Hampshire in 1912. 

The Italian garden was constructed on higher ground to the east of the house . It covers an area of 4-acres and comparing the 1842 tithe map, 1904 sales map and the 1954 edition OS Map it can be seen that the garden was sited across the existing boundaries of two fields. The garden is surrounded on three sides by rendered walls, 15 ft high in parts and wired for climbing plants. There is a small walled fruit garden between the Italian garden and Great Ambrook Avenue. 

The garden has a special and unique charm. The garden was designed as a walk with some unusual features to give an interesting visual experience along the way. It is a fluid design which relates to the earlier tradition of picturesque walks rather than the compartmentalised formal layouts of the Arts and Craft era. The garden has several interesting structures and features. As one walks up the hill a balustraded terrace closes the vista.  The structure, which overlooks the tennis lawn, has an octagonal pool and marble bench.  Beyond the rose garden, an avenue leads to the summerhouse which is the most imposing structure; a gate leads to a secluded arbour on the outside of the wall giving country views towards Dartmoor. 

The sunbathing area beside the bathing pool is at the end of another walk  which runs along most of the south-east side of the Site and includes a section under a 111ft long pergola.  From the a central view point, giving views of parkland trees, the palm avenue provides a short link to the principal  path, adjacent to which is a wild sunken area which might have been a quarry.   

Under the focal summerhouse terrace there is a huge spring-fed tank which, together with other lined tanks feed the complex water system, bathing and ornamental pools, and may once have provided the water supply to the house. The wide stone-flagged paths are edged with shallow rills to carry the water down the site and give interest to the walk. 

Graham planted a variety of trees and shrubs, many of which remain, including maidenhair trees, Monterey cypresses and western red cedars. From the original lead plant tags that have been found it is clear that some plants were imported from the Rovelli brothers renowned nursery on Lake Maggiore. 

Following Graham's death in 1928, Great Ambrook House and its garden were occupied for five years by Thomas Cuthbert Shaw, before coming into the ownership of Enid Milner, whose family remained until 1963. In the 1930s and 1940s Great Ambrook was noted in Kelly's Directory for its 'Italian garden with many rare and unusual trees and shrubs'. During the 1950s and early 1960s, however, the garden fell into neglect and was so thoroughly overgrown at the time of the 1963 sale, when then estate was broken up, that its existence appears not to have been known of. The garden was rediscovered by its owners, Mr and Mrs Kenneth Rees, in 1988, and since that time has been gradually uncovered and restored. Much of the undergrowth which had obscured the garden has been cut back, though those trees and plants which survive from Arthur Graham's time are now mature and the overall appearance is considerably more shady and verdant than is shown in early photographs.

The garden was still in good condition when the Devonshire Association visited in 1946 ‘the fine Italian garden at Great Ambrook, laid out ot great expense by the late Mr Graham’. The last Head Gardener left in 1961 and the Great Ambrook estate was broken up in 1963 by which time the site was already overgrown, the situation quickly worsening from then onwards. By the time the present owners purchased the site in the 1980s, it appeared to be woodland. With some help, they gradually uncovered the paths and structures but with a gentle respect for such a ‘sleeping beauty’. 

The Italian Garden east of Great Ambrook is the only known extant example of a garden created by Thomas Lyon.  


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