George Plumptre marvels at the breadth of artworks in the Royal Collection that celebrate gardens and gardening.
The last major exhibition celebrating gardens in art was ‘The Glory of the Garden’ at Sotheby’s in 1987. The Queen generously lent to that show, but, as is confirmed by this beautifully crafted new exhibition, she clearly kept the best at home.
‘Painting Paradise’ again celebrates the vibrant relationship between gardens and art, but does so drawing only on the Royal Collection. Early notices have focused on the light the exhibition sheds on the history of gardens and their representation in art, but the most fascinating light it sheds is on the Royal Collection, as a repository of superlative quality and diversity.
The exhibition doesn’t just tell the story of gardens through history. Instead, it presents
a kaleidoscope of riches to dazzling effect, from early Persian miniatures, sweeping through the Italian Renaissance into wider Europe and the Baroque, on to the Landscape Movement and then to the collecting delights of the Victorian age and Edwardian grandeur.
It reveals as much about connoisseurship, and about the particular loves of different members of the Royal Family, as it does about art. It reminds us that they have commissioned both as monarchs, to reflect and enhance their status and power, and as private individuals, to indulge their personal loves. You discover that William IV may not have been a great art collector, but he was a bibliophile and a number of the pre-eminent books on show were acquired by him.
No single item resonates with the projection of royal authority and succession more than the majestic The Family of Henry VIII (about 1545), with its views to the gardens of Whitehall Palace. Quite different in emphasis and style is Sir Edwin Landseer’s Windsor Castle (pictured top) in modern times: Queen Victoria, Prince Albert and Victoria, Princess Royal, which shows the Royal Family in a scene of domestic bliss. It, too, has a view out to Windsor Castle’s garden beyond as a key feature.
Research for the exhibition threw up some major discoveries, the most thrilling of which for the curator, Vanessa Remington, was confirmation that the 1523 Portrait of Jacopo Cennini, by the Florentine painter called Franciabigio, is the earliest known portrait of a professional gardener. This mesmerising work, for me the star of the show, has all the humanity of other great early Italian portraits and the sitter’s profession is confirmed by the gardening implements hanging behind him.
There is only space here to mention a few highlights. The first room is a treasure trove — where else would you find two drawings by Leonardo da Vinci and another exquisite unnamed 16th-century Italian work, etchings by Dürer, two early Dutch masterpieces and a breathtaking depiction of Christ as a gardener by Rembrandt?
There is plenty of bravura, not least in the Baroque period, and most gloriously in the oak-and-silver table made for William III to designs by his gardener William Marot, with a pineapple as the centrepiece of its stretcher. William III was competing with the French king, Louis XIV, whose gardens at Marly and Versailles are depicted in two sumptuous views by Jean-Baptiste Martin, dated about 1700.
Other paintings are important records because they show views that no longer exist, such as Danckerts’ view of the old Elizabethan façade at Hampton Court that was swept away by Sir Christopher Wren and, one of my favourites, the early-18th-century view of the working kitchen garden beneath the north wall of Windsor Castle.
I was intrigued by the Fabergé creation of a convolvulus that once belonged to Vita Sackville-West, and who could resist the miniature wheelbarrow and rake that belonged to one of Queen Victoria’s children (they each had their own sets of tools, specially labelled, to prevent squabbles)?
With a personal interest in Edward VII, I enjoyed the Cyril Ward view of the gardens at Sandringham, in which the King took such pride. He poured the earnings of his great Derby-winning racehorse Persimmon into their creation and, when showing off the majestic range of teak glasshouses that stretched for 300 yards along one garden wall, he would proudly announce to visitors: ‘All Persimmon, All Persimmon!’
The different rooms of the exhibition are themed through well-known periods of garden history, but ‘Painting Paradise’ doesn’t really need these signposts — you will find yourself wandering at will and returning to favourites. If I have a criticism, it’s the quantity of etchings and engravings that are included: historically important, but not visually dazzling, a quality for which ‘Painting Paradise’ sets high standards.
The exhibition has clearly been put together by someone with a great affection for gardens and gardeners. In her conversation with me, Mrs Remington gave a delightfully personal insight: ‘My first childhood memory was of selling tickets with my grandparents when they opened their garden in Highgate in aid of the National Gardens Scheme [NGS].’
I left feeling replete and happy that the NGS might have sown an early seed in the conception of this truly royal show, whose appeal will reach far beyond gallery buffs and gardening
George Plumptre is Chief Executive of the National Gardens Scheme. ‘Painting Paradise: The Art of the Garden’ is at The Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace, London SW1 until October 11 (020–7766 7300; www.royalcollection.org.uk). The accompanying book by Vanessa Remington, with a foreword by Sir Roy Strong, is published by the Royal Collection Trust (£29.95)