First it was Adam Nicolson in Arcadia – highly intelligent and full of insights into life in Tudor, Elizabethan and Restoration England, but basically not about gardens. Something of a surprise, since it’s based on Wilton which is, or rather was, one of England’s great iconic gardens. He seemed inexplicably preoccupied with the house and its sundry Earls: just ‘cos they hung out with Henry VIII doesn’t mean they’re more interesting than the garden, you know.
Anyway: now I’m wading into the history of the garden in art, in the company of the erudite and it must be said, himself rather iconic (or should that be iconoclastic?) Sir Roy Strong. Former director of the National Portrait Gallery and the V&A, and designer of bits of HRH Prince Charles’s garden at Highgrove as well as author of a lot of weighty books and trustee of various charitable trusts. When you read CVs like that it just makes you want to go and curl up under the carpet.
Gardens started appearing in art for the first time in – you guessed it – the 16th century. But before I plunged into Tudor England again, I had Sir Roy’s introduction to read, and that really made me think.
When you seek to picture a garden, do you set out to record an accurate representation of what the garden actually looks like? Or do you seek to capture a mood, a transient atmosphere, the feeling the garden evokes in you when you look at it?
Does it matter if you don’t – ever – record pictures of exactly how the garden looks in its entirety? Does it matter if you get the layout wrong?
The thing is, in the 16th century it really did matter, although they didn’t know it at the time. Gardens depicted in paintings – sometimes merely glimpsed behind the shoulder of a portrait’s subject – are often our only source of historical record on the existence of entire garden styles. Garden historians have pieced together more or less the entire history of the knot garden from throwaway sketches of them in the corners of Elizabethan paintings. And we’re guilty of much the same thing even today, with our ‘plant porn’ photos of pouting paeonies and our moody shots of good-looking corners here or well-planted pathways there.
But perhaps that’s the point. Gardens are art: and if you don’t record it as such, you miss an essential part of their soul. As Sir Roy writes:
“Whether on paper, panel or canvas the garden picture bestows an immortality comparable to the portrait, enabling the viewer to walk through an existing, lost or imagined garden. The artist’s role was essentially to capture this transient and fragile art, one which was subject to the mutation of the seasons and the vicissitudes of time in a way unknown, for example, to a building.“