The artist in the garden

Words by:
Steffie Shields
Featured in:
February 2015

Steffie Shields looking for inspiration.
A single, common snowdrop, Galanthus nivalis, is capable of stopping me in my tracks, making me pause, stoop and look more closely. Forget winter’s icy tentacles and drabness, new life is on its way. What joy! The glistening, pristine purity of petals with exquisite, delicate green notches catch the eye as if brushstrokes painted on by garden fairies.

Galanthophile breeders over decades have had a field day in crossing different species to arrive at unique specimens with slightly different colours, sizes, forms or markings, some attracting surprisingly high prices. Years ago, in Kathleen and Roy Beddington’s magical garden in Rippingale, I photographed Galanthus ‘Artist’. I keep searching but having never come across another, I wonder if it was their own pet name for a stunning snowdrop with lime-green tips to all its petals. Little Ponton Hall, Easton Walled Gardens, Gunby, Belton and many more are now awash with swathes of snowdrops to gladden eyes and hearts. Wrap up warmly and go see! Incidentally, I hear that the Garden House at Saxby, also a great snowdrop venue, has been enticingly renamed Brightwater Gardens.

A recent, attractive and painterly book I came across online set me thinking on this month’s theme: An Artist in the Garden: A Year in a Suffolk Walled Garden by Ronald Blythe, Jason Gathorne-Hardy and Tessa Newcomb. This recalled a sunny October afternoon that I spent exploring with other garden enthusiasts, the walled garden in question at Glemham Hall in Suffolk, which was enchanting and most unusual, shaped like a horseshoe! The warm brick walls enclosed a riot of texture, colour and produce. I came across some glass panes from an old cold frame where the grass had grown up in between, and together with the reflected sky, made a unique artwork by Mother Nature herself!

If you enjoy drawing and painting, and are looking for a source of inspiration, find a garden in your neighbourhood to visit through the year. The changing seasonal light, endless variety of life springing up, myriad colours and shapes, and then later decayed plants and dessicated seed heads will offer a textured treasure chest of ideas for your own plot. If you chance on an historic garden, look out for paintings in the house depicting how these great gardens once looked. Make comparisons with the harmony and sense of place that you see and experience now. In contrasting and variable seasonal light, whether misty or gin clear, early morning or late afternoon, it would be worth painting or sketching a picture for every month; something new to note, something different to be curious about.

Winter is an excellent time to reassess the bare bones of your own garden. Recut border and lawn edges to create an attractive curved line that pleases the eye. Realign a straight path. A winding path will enhance a journey of discovery. Consider what works, what is tired, what needs cutting down, throwing away, what needs screening, what is long overdue for replacement. Are there too many pots, a jumble of shapes and odd sizes, cluttering the scene? Should they be regrouped, simplified, taken to the tip? Would repainting the garden fence or patio furniture lift it the mood?

Invigorate your enthusiasm to spring clean with a fresh new ornament, unusual shrub or climbing rose. Treat yourself to a new garden sculpture, whether old-world classic or sleekly modernist. Perhaps introduce a small feature tree of contrasting deep plum red colour, or light silvery with weeping habit. Take care to imagine it fully grown, and choose an appropriate focal position. Introduce a new flowering shrub, or group of three small trees to create foreground interest. Divide the view to ensure that you do not see the whole garden in one sweeping glance, creating the effect that suggests more to explore beyond, or around the corner.

Look around. Do you have both space with light and an area of dappled shade? Are there quiet and soft ‘green sorbet’ areas to contrast bright, vibrant flowers. Put in a hedge that, in good time, will act as a dark, clipped backdrop to set off your delphiniums or roses. Place twin bay trees or topiary evergreens as a welcome at your front, back or patio door. Install a small pond to reflect changing skies and attract wildlife.

Frame the views. An arch with clematis and rose will give a vertical dimension. Use your imagination to create a series of pictures and take an empty picture frame on a walkabout around your garden to spot where each section needs an edge, a backdrop, a punctuation shrub, a curvaceous figure or leaping animal. I remember doing just this, soon after we moved in to Welby. Friends who were visiting helped me carry around a wooden frame to a gothic door all round our patch! Eventually, after much fun and laughter, we settled on a suitably sublime spot near pink climbing roses, as if leading to a secret garden beyond. (Actually it successfully hid the septic tank.)

Marry bold features within the setting by using colour: white agapanthus near a white seat, red peonies near a red finial. Take a series of snaps with your phone, iPad or other camera.

What areas of the garden fall down, what areas sing and are worth sharing on Facebook or Twitter? Better still, pick up a pencil or paintbrush to sketch one or two views, then repeat the exercise two or three months later from the same viewpoint. This will be a useful, peaceful and surprisingly enjoyable exercise, I promise, helping to stimulate fresh ideas.

Over the centuries, especially in this country and in Europe, there have been countless artists inspired to capture beautiful gardens, great and small. From 20th March until October 2015, a major London exhibition, coinciding with the 50th anniversary of the Garden History Society, ‘Painting Paradise – the Art of the Garden’ will take place at the Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace Road. How sad if such interpretations, responding to our natural surroundings, were to decline because the camera or the phone is more readily to hand. Creative friends or acquaintances, or even your local painting group, might welcome an invitation to set up their easels and spend time in your garden. Sharing it will give you surprising pleasure, finding out how others see key views and plants.

What fun to create a setting in every season that pleases not just you and your family, but also other minds. Realise that you are the artist in your garden. Collect a scrapbook of gardens and plant combinations that you admire. Analyse what pleases you. Look out for garden paintings in exhibitions. Hone your vision, by visiting restored or newly created gardens with inspirational ideas to master the rewarding, ever-changing, ever-challenging and peace-making art that is gardening, our national pastime.

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