'John Singer Sargent’s magical depiction of a garden at dusk is evocative of an early-summer evening.'

mark woodCarnation, Lily, Lily, Rose, 1885–86, by John Singer Sargent (1856–1925), 5ft 7½in by
4ft 11in, Tate Britain, London.

Mark Wood says:

John Singer Sargent’s magical depiction of a garden at dusk is evocative of an early-summer evening – the scents and warmth – and of the innocent delight of demure little girls safely exploring in the twilight, captivated by the lantern light and thrilled to be out as darkness descends. Central to our work at the NSPCC is the cherished conviction that every child has the right to a happy, safe childhood. This ambitious plein air picture, painted in a garden in the Cotswolds and showing Sargent’s host’s two children, Dorothy and Marion, patiently posing in costume, epitomises such a childhood.

Mark Wood is the director of the NSPCC

John McEwen comments on Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose:

Sargent painted this picture shortly after he moved to London and bought 31, Tite Street. No artist could have been more cultured and cosmopolitan. As one visitor wrote: ‘It might have been the leisure resort of a great connoisseur.’

Beneficiary of a professional American dynasty, his father an author and retired physician, Sargent was born in Florence and studied at its Academy of Fine Arts, then in Rome, Nice and Germany, before entering the Parisian studio of Carolus Duran at the age of 18. This cultured childhood also made him an exceptional linguist and pianist.

During the London Season, he worked from 11am until teatime, his valet Nicola sternly defending his privacy. He wasn’t anti-social – he was a member of the Athenaeum, the Council of the Royal Academy and the New English Art Club – but he treasured what Dr Johnson called London’s boon of ‘solitude in the midst of crowds’.

The Season over, he would retire to the country to stay with friends in the pretty Worcestershire village of Broadway, popular with artists. He saw a garden bedecked with Japanese lanterns while boating on the Thames and re-created the scene at Broadway with the daughters of the illustrator Frederick Barnard. He painted it as a French Impressionist would, outside and at the exact light level every evening.

It was unveiled at the RA in 1887 and bought by the Tate, his first picture to enter a museum. The title derived from a popular song: ‘Around her head she wore, carnation, lily, lily, rose.’ Some cynics in the art world called it ‘Darnation Silly, Silly Pose’.