Sunday 12 April 2015

#PaintingParadise: The Art of the Garden at the Queen's Gallery, London

From the natural open space of Green Park to the ordered splendour of Russell Square, it is hard to avoid London's parks and gardens. Open to all and offering different atmospheres to please all tastes, they ensure the sanity of tourists and locals alike, as well as inspiration to the most jaded of writers. When I saw the underground poster for the Queen's Gallery's exhibition 'Painting Paradise: The art of the garden', I was unconsciously lured by the well dressed young man's relaxed pose under a tree. Now I've seen that exquisitely tiny painting in its gold frame, I understand my response; it's spring. The sap is rising and simply put, sex sells, and sex is to be found in many of the painted gardens on show.

Most striking is the stunning Book of Hours belonging to the Cardinal of York from 1510. April is suitably illustrated by a sequence of four miniatures; a well dressed young couple sit on a turf seat under a trellis, whilst a small white dog gazes at them intently. A hilly landscape fades away behind and joins with the next image, where a cow grazes happily. Across the page the couple are shown on a beautifully red-caparisoned white horse. You can tell it's the same couple as the gentleman is in an identical white fur lined red gown with blue sleeves and hose. The blond haired lady riding behind him wears the same greyish gown with fur sleeves. They are riding into the woodland, away from the civilised garden and the final picture sees them naked, holding hands, their modesty secured by bushes. Whether this depicts a couple from literature, or is a classical allusion, I don't know but it's message is unmistakable. Whilst the garden is a civilised place for talking and meeting, nature isn't far away and hot animal passions can be conveniently consummated in an earthly paradise.

But before you think I've been carried away by the riotous feasting and lecherous behaviour, I want to go back to the beginning. The story starts with Indian and Persian gardens, takes us to the sacred and profane of the Renaissance with classically inspired labyrinths and illustrations of Colonna's 1499 Hypnerotomachia Poliphili. An excursion into the botanical and the exotic, via the practical arts of gardening take us into the Baroque with its long vistas and stunning birds eye views. Then just as we appear to have been up in a hot air balloon to view these vast estates, we drop gently to the ground where we are presented with carefully constructed landscapes. The images become smaller and more intimate as royal gardens become royal watercolours, and the cottage garden became the ideal. The large parks became places where the public could mingle and meet, and we appear to be back to courting once more.

Some of the reviews have accused this exhibition of being unfocused and appealing to only a certain kind of person, eg., 'for all of you who hang on every word Alan Titchmarsh says, who wait excitedly for Gardener’s Question Time and loved the much missed TV shows Front Gardens and its Sequel More Front Gardens, this is the show for you'. This is to miss the point entirely. To use a garden analogy, there are many paths which you can follow; you can see this as a collection of pretty pictures and stroll through simply smelling the flowers and taking pleasure in the riot of colour. Or you can put in a little effort, and start to create an intellectual path of your own.

The first images you see are of highly sophisticated enclosed Eastern paradise gardens. One of these is very interesting; in the top left is a water mill which is presumably providing water for the irrigation of the rare specimens within. This image 'Scene of four young men in garden' Mughal, c.1610 provides evidence of the technology behind the beauty; the practical behind the frivolity, not to mention the importance of trade and imports. Water is an essential feature of gardens in warmer climates, not just as natural air conditioning or for its pleasant musicality, but to keep plants alive. It took a great deal of ingenuity to maintain water features and the larger gardens became, the more technology was required.

Water is power. It had been a propaganda feature for some time, as evidenced by the Medici in the 1500s. It had taken a little while longer to reach English country estates. However it was quickly turned into a statement of political and personal power, as the 'A View of the Cascade, Bushy Park Water Gardens' demonstrates. Lord Halifax (Ranger of Bushy Park) completed his new Water Gardens at Upper Lodge, near Hampton Court in 1710 and it is suggested that the painting is to commemorate the completion of the new cascade and the visit to it of Prince George, later George II. The guide tells us that water features had been implemented at Hampton Court but not quite as successfully as this one. Furthermore, the water for this cascade had been diverted from the royal water supply, therefore I can imagine the smug satisfaction of Halifax and his engineers.

Garden tools and implements are vital and they are clearly shown in the portrait of one of the Medici's gardeners Jacopo Cennini. This painting was first described by Giorgio Vasari in his ‘vite’ of the artist Franciabigio (1568) and the sitter managed the small Fiesole villa and estate of Pierfrancesco di Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de’ Medici (1487-1525). The prominence of the keys show he was a trusted servant, however I like to imagine it as a reference to St Peter and the keys to Heaven; as a solid practical man, he would create a small paradise in Fiesole for his Medici masters. One of the tools is for vines and the other for general cultivation - massively important for renaissance country estates.

My grandfather's gardening manual eventually fell apart, patched together with tape and pins, it contained annotations, corrections and inadvertent soil samples. Although the practical texts on show here have obviously never seen a green house, the Ruralia commoda was the must have guide for the outdoor lifestyle of the wealthy and powerful. Despite its practical woodcuts, it wasn't entirely suitable for estate managers as it was in Latin; an erudite text for the princely reader. Gervase Markham's 'The English husbandman : ... contayning the knowledge of husbandly duties ... [and] the art of planting, grafting and gardening' - in English and also illustrated - is far more practical book and something my grandfather would have understood and recognised.

It wasn't just water and tools, buildings could also offer technological advancements for the early modern garden. I was astonished to see a pen and ink sketch of a 'façade of a villa with a rusticated colonnade and a walled garden' (c. 1550) with what appears to be a roof garden on the colonnade; the description suggests turf or low growing herbs. The engineering skill required for a reinforced roof, combined with garden access and availability water is impressive. Having had a roof garden myself, the benefits are many, not least the lack of slugs.

Finally as the exhibition moves into the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, technology of a different kind emerges. No less artificial than the fanciful baroque gardens, the art of the ceramicist and goldsmiths create and perfect nature from precious metals, stones and glass. The delicate Faberge flowers, grasses, and leaves, will take far longer to fade than their natural counterparts. Although restoration of the riotous sunflower clock (c. 1752) has been necessary, it now shimmies and shines just as it would when it was new. This taste-breaking piece is worthy of the most decadent rococo cabinet of curiosities, and cleverly enables real and manufactured flowers to be brought together.
And obviously the stunning chandelier in the second to last room reflects the best of nineteenth century central European glass making. The inventory says, 'recent research has revealed that it was probably made by the famed Viennese glass company, Lobmeyr, who were commissioned for many royal and civic chandelier and glass services across Austria and Germany'. It's almost inevitable that this piece was inspired by pieces displayed in the Dresden court because it seems that Saxon manufacturing and technology led the way. The pure green of the glass and gilt leaves enhance the white lilies and convolvulus as they spiral up the central point; far more tasteful and elegant than the clock, in my view.  

So although the gardens and objects at the end of the exhibition are far removed from the Persian gardens at the start, their inherent purpose hasn't really changed. Princes would discuss poetry, music and philosophy under shady bowers; Renaissance men of letters would walk and converse under colonnades; courtiers would admire the watery pyrotechnics of artificial cascades; and botanists and explorers would share their new scientific discovers in the varied environments of the green houses at Kew. And all the time, people both young and old make merry in the green spaces of a London spring.

Painting Paradise: The Art of the Garden at The Queen's Gallery, Buckingham Palace until Sunday, 11 October 2015. If you buy your ticket directly, it is valid for a year. Bargain at £10!

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