Paradise Lost: Richard Cork Discovers That Gardens Can Be Both Idyllic Retreats and Places of Menace
Cork, Richard, New Statesman (1996)
No nation is more besotted with gardens than us, so it was inevitable that Tate Britain would get around to mounting a major show called "Art of the Garden". Images of horticultural prowess are legion in British painting. And some artists have taken this love affair to an ambitious extreme by turning their gardens into highly considered artworks. As such, I went along to the Tate expecting an orgy of flourishing flowers and foliage, celebrating an infatuation with fecundity.
Mercifully, however, the exhibition is far more than a pictorial version of the Chelsea Flower Show. The opening pair of paintings, in which John Constable pays tribute to his father's gardens in Suffolk, may seem straightforward enough. But the shadow spreading over the lawn, along with a darkening cloud above the horizon, alert us to a more elegiac mood. Even as he defines the richness of this parental haven, Constable mourns the loss of his mother, Ann. She had died that year, 1815, defeated by exertions in the flower garden. Her fever, according to Constable's brother, had been brought on "by the cold, which was very severe, & stooping to weed".
Thus, right from the outset, we realise that gardening can be a source of mortal danger as well as delight. And the garden itself turns out to be a place where complex and conflicting emotions thrive. When Spencer Gore looked down from his flat in Camden Town on the eve of the Great War, he filled much of his canvas with the writhing forms of an immense fig tree in the garden below. A woman stands alone beneath its branches. She may be Gore's young wife, so the painting could be a simple reflection of his love for her as well as his willingness to learn from Paul Gauguin and Vincent Van Gogh. But she appears strangely remote and forlorn, confined by the surrounding houses.
Soon enough, we find ourselves confronting the impact of war. In 1940, Harry Bush produced a painstaking picture of a deep crater gouged by a Luftwaffe bomb in the back garden of his house at Merton, Surrey. All around, windows and roofs have been shattered by the blast. But Bush catches the unnerving air of stillness in the raid's aftermath, and the stoicism of two minuscule figures conversing amid the desolation. Later in the war, Adrian Allinson painted plucky members of the Auxiliary Fire Service creating allotments in a "dig for victory" at the heart of St James's Square, in central London.
Even when the show moves on to the theme of the secret garden, the notion of an idyllic retreat soon finds itself threatened by menace. Samuel Palmer's water-colour In a Shoreham Garden (1829) is ecstatic enough, as an apple tree freighted with plump, burgeoning blossoms seems on the verge of exploding into the sky. But Richard Dadd's Portrait of a Young Man (1853) introduces a more tense and melancholy feeling. Dressed in funereal black, the sitter may be a doctor called William Hood, who helped "Mad" Dadd cope with mental instability while incarcerated in an asylum. The young man looks sombre, while the sunlit garden stretching behind his bench is seen as an unattainable place, where the frustrated Dadd must have longed to roam at will.
In Mat Collishaw's large colour print Who Killed Cock Robin? (1997), three little children gravely offer a bouquet to the dead bird laid out before them. The children seem oddly shrunken in comparison with the colossal size of the petals and plants surging above their heads. …