Robert Kitson built Casa Cuseni (see house photo) in 1905 and completed the garden over the next few years.
It is situated on a steep slope above the ancient city walls of Taormina and has spectacular views of Mount Etna and the bay of Naxos.
The house and garden, which were largely designed by Kitson himself to make the best of local materials, are exceptional because they represent an eclectic mix of architectural styles: the dimensions of the house and the structure of the stairways leading up to it are inspired by the neoclassical Italian period, whereas the balconies are pure Sicilian baroque.
In the garden, the walls and plasterwork are art nouveau in character, the fountains rococo, the pavement decorations are exotic versions of the local Sicilian brick and pebble mosaic (ciottolato); North African tiles decorate occasional walls.
The design of the individual gardens and the planting (see Plant List) owes much to the ideas of the Arts and Crafts movement, as does the dining room which was designed and painted by Sir Frank Brangwyn RA, one of the leading exponents of the style. Every element in the room, from the panelling to the table, chairs and sideboard, represents part of a work of art, rather than being an object in itself. The frescoes depict Arcadian scenes of nymphs and shepherdesses.
The five large French windows leading on to the terrace from the ground floor rooms reinforce the unity between house and garden.
During the Second World War, Kitson was forced to leave Taormina when the house was requisitioned by the Italians, the Germans and then by the British. A gunshot hole in a painting and lipstick on a bust of St Mary Magdalene bear testimony to these stages in the house's history. Alan Whicker, the broadcaster, was one of the British soldiers who benefited from a period of recreation here during his wartime service.
Kitson returned to his beloved Casa Cuseni after the war but died in 1947. Daphne Phelps came out to sell the house, then decided to stay on in Sicily and let rooms to friends of friends, mainly artists and writers, one of whom was Bertrand Russell.
Daphne could not afford to employ three gardeners as her uncle had and for 50 years did much of the work herself. She was forced to sell plots of land above the property and no longer had rainfall from the bare mountainside draining into the tank at the top of the garden to water the plants. She therefore had to use more local species which could resist the heat and drought.
Daphne described her struggles to conserve the house and garden in her autobiography A House in Sicily.
A tour of the garden would begin with the papyrus pool which is surmounted by a tall rococo structure abutting the citrus terrace above.
Olive trees, plumbago and cypress laced with bourgainvillea trace the semicircular garden wall which separates the garden from the busy road to Castelmola.
The citrus terrace was planted in the 1930s with a mixture of lemon, grapefruit, mandarin and sweet orange trees.
Caricatures of the owner and his capo-maestro, Don Carlo Siligato, adorn the walls on this level veiled by the red blossoms of the pomegranate.
There are unexpected glimpses of a statue or an ancient jar bursting with trailing succulents. A double ramp leads to a ciottolato pavement in the form of a fishpond and on this terrace there is a selection of trees from all over the world. Here the fronds of the California pepper tree, circular leaves of the custard apple and spiny trunk of the chorisia compliment the exotic white foliage of the orchid tree.
A double staircase brings the visitor to the terrace in front of the house, passing a small basin backed by the face of an ancient satyr.
To the right, a pergola covered in wisteria, jasmine and white bourgainvillea provides fragrance and a welcome shady place in the garden.
On the left, vines cover an al fresco dining area.
The date 1905 is moulded in wrought iron above the front door to the right side of the house. Trees on this terrace include a persimmon, alongside more common Mediterranean plants such as lantana and bay. In spring this area is filled with aoneum, red flax and hibiscus. A high wall draped in wisteria separates this garden from the more formal santolina terrace.
Wandering on up the path the visitor arrives at another garden way above the house with spectacular views of Etna on a fine day. A large ciottolato pavement lined by fruit trees,. iris and agapanthus ends in another papyrus pool bounded on three sides by a pink stuccoed wall with graceful statues in niches at either end.
The old swimming pool is situated on the top level above
the olive trees.