Villa San Giorgio, Taormina

Colonel Thomas Bradney Shaw-Hellier moved to Taormina in Sicily and lived there for the last four years of his life from 1907 to 1910. There he built the Villa San Giorgio with his friend the leading Arts and Crafts designer C. R. Ashbee. It is now known as the Ashbee Hotel.

Col. T.B. Shaw-Hellier watering his garden at Villa San Georgio, Taormina © Wilhelm von Gloeden [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons
Col. T.B. Shaw-Hellier watering his garden at Villa San Georgio, Taormina © Wilhelm von Gloeden [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The Colonel was 70 years old when he took the step of leaving his home country, but this was no meek and quiet retirement. Ashbee’s memoirs talk of the enthusiasm and youthfulness of the Colonel’s ambitions. He built a luxurious Villa in a sublime location to hold vivacious parties full of music and dance. In Ashbee’s poem “Conradin”, dedicated to the Colonel, he was in quest of a “Sicilian Paradise” – a wonderful place of classic antiquity and beauty and a place to die.

View over Greek seat to Capo Sant'Alessio, The Ashbee Hotel, Taormina, 2018. Taken from the same viewpoint as the Gloeden's photograph of Col. T.B. Shaw-Hellier watering his garden

View over Greek seat to Capo Sant’Alessio, The Ashbee Hotel, Taormina, 2018. Taken from the same viewpoint as the Gloeden’s photograph of Col. T.B. Shaw-Hellier watering his garden

The Colonel had put all his affairs back in England in order and had no intention of returning. He left behind a significant military career as Commandant of the Royal Military School of Music and a fine and restored English country house at the Wodehouse, Wombourne.

He had retired from Kneller Hall in 1893 and clearly sought new channels for his energies. He briefly tried marriage in 1899 but that by all accounts was a disaster. Accounts say he was a convivial companion, loved all kinds of music and good company and conversation. He had always lived in closed male societies where he could find this friendship – Winchester School, Brasenose College Oxford, a number of Freemasons’ lodges (Apollo Oxford, Staffordshire Knot and Dublin), the Army and finally the environment of Kneller Hall and the Military School of Music.

Taormina in this period was a remarkable place and was a new experience for both Ashbee and himself. Here the Colonel found fellow Englishmen with widely differing political and social views. He himself was high anglican and in many ways conservative, but he was clearly overwhelmed by the freedom from English stuffiness that Taormina permitted. His ability to make new friends at the age of 70 is remarkable. All of his friends were naturally far younger than him, most were openly homosexual – they were artists, writers and poets.

The most influential friend was probably Robert Hawthorn Kitson who had built the Casa Cuseni in Taormina in about 1905. Kitson and a number of other key people in this community were, like the Colonel, Freemasons. Kitson’s sister Ethel, (later mother of Daphne Phelps) also visited with a wide circle of friends. But the acquaintances were not only from England.

The picture of Col. T.B. Shaw-Hellier watering his garden was taken by the famous German photographer Wilhelm von Gloeden who also took a picture of building of the Villa.  Gloeden is now best known for his pictures of ‘classical’ naked Sicilian boys taken in Taormina. The Colonel, as mentioned in Ashbee’s journal, also surrounded himself with a “bevy of Sicilian boy retainers”. Similarly according to Janet Ashbee “the old colonel’s menage [was] humming with beautiful Sicilian boys”.

Ashbee’s design (perspectives and plans) for the Villa San Giorgio are held by RIBA. The foundation stone was laid on St. George’s Day 23 Apr 1908. It includes a Masonic dedication to the Great Architect of the Universe and the names of the architect, the local builders and their patron:

In Nome del Grande Architetto del Universo
Questa Pietra Fu Messa al Posto
Il Giornodella Festa di San Giorgio
Collonello Tommasso Bradney Shaw-Hellier
Aprile 23 1908
C R Ashbee Architetto Signori Gullotta e Vinciguerra Costruttori

Interior decorative carving was done by Alec Miller and Will Hart from the Guild of Handicraft, Chipping Campden. Also classical archeologist John Beazley was invited to inspect historical finds during construction of the villa.

The building was completed in Summer the following year. In the meantime, the Colonel rented a property nearby, from which to oversee the progress of the works.

The colonel enjoyed his new home for barely two short years. He died, aged 74, on 23 Dec 1910. The villa remained in the hands of the Colonel’s great nieces until at least 1940 and the outbreak of war.


  • C.R.Ashbee: Conradin, a Philosophical Ballad, Essex House Press, Oct 1908 – (Dedication: To T.B.S.H, known and beloved by all who know him as the Colonel)
  • David M. Boswell: The Kitsons and the Arts: a leeding family in Sicily and the West Riding, University of York, PhD thesis, 1994
  • Fiona McCarthy: The Simple Life, C R Ashbee in the Cotswolds, 1981
  • Felicity Ashbee: Janet Ashbee, Life and Love in the Arts and Crafts Movement, 2002