Mention artists and gardens and Monet springs to mind. Most art and garden lovers make the pilgrimage to Giverny at some point, to wonder at the waterlilies and gaze misty eyed at the Clos. Whatever your thoughts about this modest garden near Vernon, France, there is no doubt that it has a certain magic. The crowds and the cameras may be distracting, but looking at your photographs when you get home I bet you fall under its spell. There are creative brushstrokes in its borders, even if the palette of plants has changed over the years.
Flowers and plants have been natural subjects for artists since the earliest times. They find their way onto paper, board and canvas, both as the main subjects of artworks and in supporting roles. I based one of my Chelsea gardens around artists and gardens, and I have to admit it remains one of my favourite exhibits to this day.
I suppose I have always looked at plants and flowers in that way. There are moments in a garden when a flower becomes a painting, or recalls the style of an artist. Maybe it’s the poise of a flower, how it sits in a border, or how the light catches it. Perhaps it’s how a garden sharpens and softens in focus according to the direction of your gaze. Or it could be the impact of colour. For me certain shades and colour combinations recall the works of certain artists; a journey through the garden is a stroll through a gallery crowded with works of art.
Take the crumpled silky petals of Papaver ‘Patty’s Plum’ for example. Soft grey mauve against soft velvet green, still but with great movement and mystery. These blooms will always be a Degas to me; ballet dancers waiting in the wings, frothy and light, but anticipating drama and movement. Slightly softly focussed; no definite lines or limits.
A single white waterlily, or filtered sunlight defining the margins of leaves recalls Rousseau: those splendid, exotic jungle landscapes with animals and lotus blossoms. Clean lines and surreal reality.
When it comes to bearded irises they are Van Gogh. Yes he painted irises, lots of sunflowers too, but there is something beyond the subject matter of a painting in those exquisitely constructed blooms. They have a kind of bold, tortured beauty; defined and slightly muscular, but with a timid fragility. I imagine he was captivated by their ephemeral beauty and wanted to capture the moment when they were at their fullest and most flamboyant. I always feel certain sadness when I see their curled remains on the end of flower stems, especially without the presence of buds full of promise alongside.
Cezanne often pained in my colours: those warm shades of sunset, old leather and parchment and ripe fruit. The pelargoniums with coloured foliage that I use in pots on the patio remind me of those still life pictures of bowls of peaches and apples, rounded, rich and warm. Although the geranium foliage has its own aromatic quality, somehow it reminds me of the woody, musty air that must have surrounded Cezanne’s fruit bowls, probably with a hint of old cheese and stale wine.
This may sound all rather romantic and fanciful, but I imagine we have all had a Monet moment on coming across a cornfield stained with poppies. On a garden tour to Ireland, on a cool, clear morning I came across a clump of those vibrant orange red Oriental poppies planted alongside Stipa gigantea, stirred by the breeze. I remember this as such a moment, slightly blurred but obvious by its colour and mood.
So many garden plants and planting combinations are art forms in themselves: the painted leaves of persicaria and heuchera, the brightly coloured lines of cornus stems chalked on the winter landscape. Some just recall the style or mark of an artist; maybe you think of tulips as Hockney? For me they are something far more elegant: sculpture with clean lines. Perhaps you associate them with Dutch Masters: heavy, opulent and all too accurate, like the flowers of auriculas and crown imperials?
Those of us that enjoy putting plants together to create a planting design are painting with plants. We play with colour and texture. If we try to copy the result is never the same as the original, it has its own unique quality. That’s magic of working with plants rather than paint; they are alive, they change.
So what do you think? Are there plants and flowers that you associate with certain artists, paintings, periods or styles? Or am I just drifting off into a world of make believe? They say that Monet really tried to paint the light, the air and the whole mood and atmosphere of his garden. That was his frustration- he couldn’t capture it. What do you see when you look at your favourite flower or your garden. I would love to know.....