On a recent visit to Madrid, I called in to the house of Joaquim Sorolla (to my mind, one of the greatest of the Impressionist painters). Like Monet and others, he was one of those artists who loved his garden and, in later life, used it for inspiration and as subject matter. Located in the heart of Madrid, the garden has been created to manage the heat of the city. ‘The garden with its Moorish echoes is the quintessence of the Spanish garden’. It is divided up into three linked but clearly distinguished parts. There is extensive use of aspidistras in huge pots to line balconies and provide focal points around the garden. Roses are grown in pots and situated throughout the garden – the ones I saw in flower were of a cream I associate with ‘Buff Beauty’. And, of course, plenty of pelargoniums in pots, most of which had finished flowering (my visit was in September). If in Madrid, do visit!
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.
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.
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’.
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.
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.
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.
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.
From time to time I suffer a degree of frustration when watching films which include shots of gardens or cultivation of some sort. I remember an adaptation of one of E. M. Forster’s novels which included a scene of a cottage with flowering wisteria climbing over the house and tulips and roses in the herbaceous borders. I’m not sure quite what kind of climactic freak would have forced all of these to be flowering at the same time.
In the Martian, Matt Damon cultivates potatoes in order to survive. But images of the potato plants showed thin spindly stems topped by a little green growth. I don’t know of a potato that grows in such a thin layer of soil and which produces growth like this and crops well! I’m not convinced that this is possible. OK perhaps I am being a little too literal here and should suspend disbelief for a while – after all it is only a film!
When I visited Giverny some years ago in a wet May, I noticed that the wisteria on the bridge was blooming beautifully. When I took a closer look, I discovered that the blooms were silk! I queried this with one of the gardeners and he told me that a studio was filming in the garden and this was what they had specified. Film studios spend a great deal of time, money and effort into creating interiors, costumes and the like which are authentic. A whole industry has been built up around ensuring the integrity of films. But when it comes to gardens there seems to be a lapse which takes place. Of interest or knowledge I am not sure. I wonder if there is an opening for a garden consultant somewhere?
Thoroughly recommend visiting this exhibition if you can. We combined it with a visit to the Marianne North gallery and took all day over it. The sculptures are all based on plants and have been beautifully set around the gardens.