I am a Plantsman’s daughter. I am also an Artist’s daughter. Plants and paintings have always been there in the fabric of my life. Judging by the swirling crowds on both occasions that I have visited PAINTING THE MODERN GARDEN, I am not alone in liking paintings of gardens. Flower gardens were the preserve of the wealthy until the end of the nineteenth century until growing numbers of the middle class began to have more leisure time to spend in the gardens of their suburban houses, gardens that didn’t need to be given over to the growing vegetables. Plant-hunters brought back many new showy blooms, such as dahlias, fueling a passion for plants.
Impressionist gardens kick the exhibition off and, as you would expect with Monet in the title, in the first room my attention was drawn by a Monet. We see a lady dressed in white standing admiring a tree in blossom surrounded by a sea of red flowers. The sun glows through her parasol. I like to think that just round the corner is a shady arbor where, in about five minutes’ time, she will sit and spend the afternoon drinking lemonade whilst reading a novel. Such reveries are encouraged by the gallery seating which consists of rather fine garden benches.
Growing affluence combined with the increased leisure time fueled a boom in all things horticultural. Nurseries sprang up, gardening manuals and magazines started to be published, seed catalogues occupied long winter evening fueling dreams of summer, . The central gallery of the exhibition is devoted to seed catalogues and the like, all cunningly displayed in rather lovely cold frames. Back to the paintings and we meet Louis Comfort Tiffany, he of the stained glass, who is depicted painting in a garden. Mr Tiffany must have done alright for himself as he is dressed in a white suit, oblivious to the perils of paint and grass besmirching his lovely suit.
Mention Monet and gardens to most people and they will think of waterlilies. Monet spent his last years painting in his garden at Giverny, his eyes misted with cataracts, but the shimmering water and luminous lilies drew him back to his easel time after time. Fittingly the last two galleries are devoted to Monet and Giverny with the showstopper saved for last. The Agapanthus triptych usually resides torn asunder in Kansas, Cleveland and St Louis, this exhibition reunites the constituent parts. As you stand in the middle of its curve it is easy to imagine yourself on the Japanese bridge looking down at the pool’s surface. It is a bit of shock to leave the bridge and find yourself tempted by a lily pond glasses cases, complete with matching lens cloth, for £10 in the gift shop.
Royal Academy of Arts
Saturday 30 January – Wednesday 20 April
10am – 6pm daily (Friday open until 10pm)
Admission: Adults £17.60, children under 16 and Friends of the RA go free