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Ever since my father in law came back from a charity shop some years ago armed with Roy Strong’s weighty tome, The Artist and The Garden (which I subsequently discovered is a classic widely used by horticulture colleges teaching garden history), I have been fascinated by how much of what we know about gardens through history is glimpsed over the shoulders of people’s portraits.

In fact I was inspired to write a blog post at the time – and now I’m reprising on the subject as a few weeks ago I had the enormous privilege of coming face to face with many of the paintings I talked about then, in the original, larger than life and twice as impressive.

They were all part of ‘Painting Paradise’, the breathtaking exhibition running all this summer at the Queens Gallery just to the side of Buckingham Palace in London. Don’t miss it – I don’t usually rave about exhibitions (I don’t even go to them very often) but this one is really special.

Among paintings that made me stop in my tracks were this portrait of King Henry VIII, familiar from Roy Strong’s book but oh, so much more impressive in real life:


British School, 16th century, The Family of Henry VIII, c. 1545. Oil on canvas, 144.5 x 355.9 cm (support, canvas/panel/str external). RCIN 405796. Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2014

It’s huge, occupying the best part of a wall in the exhibition, and its importance to garden history can’t be overstated: those background peeks are I believe the only authentic visual record of what Tudor gardens were really like.

But it goes back further than that. There is a beautiful section on Persian gardens, including the earliest illustrated Islamic manuscript in the Royal Collection dating back to 1510 including the lovely miniature, ‘Seven Couples in a Garden’ by Mir’Ali Shir Nava’i.


Mir ‘Ali Shir Nava’i (d. 1501), Khamsa (Quintet) of Nava’i, 1492. Manuscript on gold sprinkled paper, written in superb nasta’liq script, with elegant illuminations at the beginning of each poem, and six miniature paintings. | 34.4 x 23.0 cm (book measurement (conservation)) | RCIN 1005032. Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2014

Then – much later – there was this astonishing picture of a stag hunt against the magnificent setting of the – presumably only just completed – Versailles gardens in the background:


Attributed to Jean-Baptiste Martin (1659-1735), A Stag Hunt at Versailles, c. 1700. Oil on canvas, 120.0 x 180.4 cm (support, canvas/panel/str external). RCIN 406958. Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2014

Apparently the water in that huge lake wouldn’t have actually been there at the time: all the water in Versailles was pumped at enormous inconvenience and expense from various ponds and reservoirs so they couldn’t keep them going all the time and would only turn them on when the King was walking around the gardens.

And then there was this massive aerial view of Hampton Court – I must admit I found it hardly recognisable from my own knowledge of the modern-day garden (visited each year for the RHS Hampton Court Flower Show). It makes you realise just how radically it’s changed over the centuries.


Leonard Knyff (1650-1722), A View of Hampton Court, c. 1702-14. Oil on canvas, 153.1 x 216.3 cm (support, canvas/panel/str external). RCIN 404760. Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2014

And just one last one: I was also rather taken with this depiction of Christ and Mary Magdalene at the Tomb:


Rembrandt van Rijn (Leiden 1606-Amsterdam 1669), Christ and St Mary Magdalen at the Tomb. Signed and dated 1638. Oil on panel, 61.0 x 49.5 cm (support, canvas/panel/str external), RCIN 404816. © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2014

There is a great deal of symbolism evoked by gardens depicted in paintings. Here, it’s all about referencing that old Persian idea of the garden as an earthly Paradise: Jesus, of course, is showing Mary the paradise of Heaven.

I do like the idea of Jesus Christ as a gardener: if you look closely he’s holding a trowel and has something like a pruning knife shoved into his belt. It fits, somehow. Love that hat, too.

There’s so much more to write about I feel a second post coming on. But do go and see the exhibition: it’s truly inspiring. You have until 11 October to get yourself over there – find out a bit more about it, how to get tickets etc here.