Artists and Gardens

Catherine Horwood’s mention of Cedric Morris in her talk is a reminder of the close relationship between artists and their gardens. In 2016 The Royal Academy held a wonderful exhibition ‘Painting the Modern Garden, Monet to Matisse’, which devoted one room to Monet’s triptych of waterlilies. Many of us have had the pleasure of visiting his garden at Giverny, which is the subject of some of his most famous works of art.

Claude Monet The Water Lily Pond (National gallery)

Alfred Parsons (1847 – 1920) was an English artist who not only created his own garden, but designed for others. He provided the illustrations for many famous garden writers including Ellen Willmott (The Genus Rosa) and William Robinson (The Wild Garden). His friendship with Robinson led to him lending advice on the planting at Gravetye Manor.

Parsons had a wide mix of friends in both America and England, including John Singer Sargent and the novelist Henry James. Parsons’ paintings apparently mirrored the aspirations of Americans for an English garden and in 1899, when Henry James bought Lamb House in Rye, he invited Parsons to design the garden for him. It was here that he wrote some of his most acclaimed novels. Lamb House was much later bought by E.F. Benson and the view of the garden from the windows provided the inspiration for the Mapp and Lucia novels. In 2014, the BBC adapted these for a television series and used the garden at Lamb House for filming.

Anna Chancellor and Miranda Richardson in the garden at Lamb House

And so, to Cedric Morris. As well as painting portraits, still lifes and landscapes, Morris painted flowers extensively. In Higham Suffolk, he and his partner founded the East Anglia School of Art, but here Morris also indulged his passion for plants and, in particular, irises. He produced at least 90 named varieties and also exhibited at the Chelsea Flower Show. His gravestone reads ‘Cedric Morris Artist and Plantsman’.

Cedric Morris Iris Seedlings, 1943, Tate Gallery

I am often struck by how much a beautifully designed herbaceous border, the Long Border at Great Dixter for example, resembles a work of art.

Vija, February 2021

Weather-proofing the garden

I have spent some time over the past two days trying to protect the more tender plants I still have outside. The greenhouse is full and there is nowhere else for anything to go, short of bringing everything indoors! I therefore have varying layers of fleece and old sheets propped up with canes to keep them clear of the plants and all looking very ugly.  With a weather forecast now predicting temperatures of -6 I have added blankets.

I look with envy to countries like Japan who so effectively seem to support their plants, making the supporting structure a thing of beauty in itself. The technique below is called yakitsuri and I first saw it in a Monty Don television series. This is designed to stop the weight of the snow from breaking the branches of the trees.

Similarly, the woven willow used to support border plants through the summer in our own gardens such as Great Dixter is not only functional, but looks nice.

When Pat and I visited in a brief respite from lockdown in 2020, to protect dahlias from slugs at Great Dixter, they had used sheep’s wool spread out over the soil at the base of plants. Where this was dark brown it worked, but the white sheep’s wool was not in the least appealing and detracted from the overall beauty of the borders.

(Photo NOT from Great Dixter, just an example.)

There is an art to protecting your plants in winter (or summer) in a way that looks attractive, or at the very least not as offensive as my own efforts and is which not damaging to the environment. I have yet to master it.

Vija, Feb 12, 2021

The English Landscape

Heart of Oak – Royal Navy Anthem

I recently attended a lecture (on Zoom of course!) about Thomas Gainsborough and his connection to the English landscape. Many people will be familiar with his portraits, but the landscapes in the background are not always commented on so widely, unless it is the painting of Mr. and Mrs. Andrews, which seems to be the subject of a huge range of interpretations (not all repeatable in a horticultural blog perhaps).

The 18th century was a period of great upheaval – the South Sea Bubble burst in 1720 triggering a financial panic; in 1721 the country had its first prime minister in Sir Robert Walpole; in 1739 Britain declared war on Spain; in 1745 Bonnie Prince Charlie landed in Scotland to claim the British throne; in 1756 the Seven Years war between Britain and France began; there was unrest both in America and at home and throughout this period, there was a Hanoverian king. It is all too easy to forget that two of the great names associated with landscape architecture, William Kent and Lancelot Brown, were working against this background, with Brown finding little favour with the ordinary person by uprooting and moving whole villages when they stood in the way of his designs.

It is also no coincidence that Brown, Kent and their peers were creating landscapes which came to be seen as quintessentially English. Reacting against the formality of the classic gardens which were inspired by those on the continent and France in particular, they designed gardens that were intended to reflect the ‘sinuous curves’ of the English countryside. Ironically, Brown, who never travelled outside the shores of his home island, was inspired by the paintings of French artists such as Poussin.

Nicolas Poussin Landscape with Figures c1646

In the background of Gainsborough’s paintings, this same concern with the natural is evident. Even in his most famous portraits, for example the one of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire and the actress Perdita. Both show an English landscape populated by English trees, most commonly the oak.

Duchess of Devonshire, Thomas Gainsborough

Mrs. Mary Robinson (Perdita) Thomas Gainsborough

Apparently, as Gainsborough was not a ‘plein air’ artist, in order to remind himself of the shape of the oak he would arrange stems of sprouting broccoli in front of his easel!

This tension between what is an English garden and what is from mainland Europe has influenced garden design throughout history.

With the RHS encouraging people to plant a tree in their Roots for Remembrance, a nationwide memorial initiative, it seems an appropriate time to think about the role of the oak in English landscape culture.

Vija, Feb 2021

Local wildlife in Paula’s garden

CABAHS Committee member Paula has been grateful for the distraction of wildlife-watching during the Lockdown, and has been reading up about it. Paula’s garden style is “not manicured” but she does like to keep things under control – things such as ivy. She says that ivy can cover a multitude of sins and like it or not, it certainly helps out the local wildlife. Plus it is evergreen and makes a lovely backdrop about now, when everything else has lost its colour. She was intrigued to learn that there is an Ivy Bee, one to watch out for this year. The Wildlife Trust says that ivy bees are recent arrivals to the UK, being first recorded in 2001 and slowly spreading North. They look like honey bees and feed mainly on ivy nectar. There doesn’t seem to be anything bad known about them so at the moment they are welcome!

Paula has also been bird watching and says another “new” arrival to our gardens is the Collared Dove, a less bulky version of the native Wood Pigeon.

They are normally seen in pairs (a good Valentine omen maybe!) and come to bird feeding stations sometimes. They are not native but arrived from the Middle East in the 1950’s – a bit like the Green Parakeets that are now all over the South East, although not such a pest. They are mainly seed and berry eaters and if they raise a brood successfully they often return to the same nest site.

If you would like to find out more, try these links:

https://www.wildlondon.org.uk/wildlife-explorer/invertebrates/bees-and-wasps/ivy-bee

https://www.rspb.org.uk/birds-and-wildlife/wildlife-guides/bird-a-z/collared-dove/

Paula, February 2021