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William Morris and Philip Webb. Design for Trellis Wallpaper, 1862. (c) William Morris Gallery

Gardens just don’t lose their charm for artists!

17 September 2018 | Emily May

Did you grow up loving Beatrix Potter and The Secret Garden? Then Newcastle’s Laing Art Gallery’s “The Enchanted Garden” exhibition is for you, as it explores how gardens have been an ongoing inspiration through 100 years of art history. We chatted to curator Amy Barker to learn more about the artists who have flirted with fauna and flora in their work.

Culture Calling: What was the initial inspiration to create The Enchanted Garden Exhibition?
Amy Barker: The idea came first from our learning team - they suggested we look at secret gardens, and garden paintings in the collection. This was about four years ago. We kept the idea in reserve and later began to develop a pair of exhibitions around the theme of Enchantment. The second (next autumn) is on interiors and is built around the Laing’s great Burne-Jones painting Laus Veneris. The first, on gardens, has been developed with the Laing’s Stanley Spencer The Dustman or The Lovers as a starting point.

Image Credit: Stanley Spencer. The Dustman or The Lovers, 1934. Oil on Canvas. (c) The Estate of Stanley Spencer, Bridgeman Images.
CC: You say you visited gardens such as Charleston and Sissinghurst leading up to the exhibition. How did this fuel your research?
AB: I find it helps enormously to immerse myself in the subject I’m researching. I was lucky enough to have a grant to travel for research, and the Bloomsbury and Arts & Crafts sections felt the most driven by personalities I needed to learn more about. I’d already done some work around William Morris and his houses, so I travelled to East Sussex to get a sense of the Bloomsbury landscape and community. I’ve tried to ensure that the exhibition includes powerful strands of narrative around women artists and artists and writers who today would identify as LGBTQ. Seeing the room at Monk’s House where Virginia Woolf spent her first night with Vita Sackville West, in the midst of my visit to Charleston and to Sissinghurst, moved me immensely. The personal stories behind extraordinary art drive everything I do as a curator.
CC: The overarching topic is depictions of gardens by different artists, but is the exhibition divided into any other smaller sub sections or themes?
AB: Yes - it’s got six sections. I worried it was too many! But there are three galleries so it works. The first is called “A Very British Love Affair” and explores enchantment in the form of nostalgic and even imagined visions of English country gardens. It includes Beatrix Potter and Helen Allingham. The second moves onto magic and enchanted love: it takes stories by Chaucer, fairytales, and classics such as ‘Cupid and Psyche’ and combines them in a magical group of works, which at times are dark and uncomfortable. And as I mentioned above, there’s the Bloomsbury section, and of course there’s the Stanley Spencers, and a section exploring Light and Shade featuring Monet. The final group is called “Abstracting the Garden” and features work by Pasmore, Bacon, Gear and Heron. It introduces visitors to the idea that even when artists develop abstract paintings in the middle of the 20th century they still used gardens as inspiration. The abstraction itself creates a sense of enchantment - the works are playful, subversive or just a reflection of shapes and colours.

Image Credit: Laing Art Gallery via Twitter
CC: As you’ve mentioned, ‘The Dustman or The Lovers’ by Stanley Spencer from the Laing’s permanent collection is a key feature of the exhibition. Can you explain what is so special about this painting and how it fits into the exhibition’s themes?
AB: This is a superb painting! Really impactful. It’s quite large, and the figures are so immediate - you feel like you’ve joined them looking into the front garden of the dustman and his wife. Stanley Spencer was brought up in Cookham. He moved back there after studying in London and then fighting in the First World War. This village was his playground, he was obsessed with it and it rarely leaves his paintings. As a child he and his brother dreamed of the magical things hidden behind the high walls of their neighbours. As an adult, he continued dreaming and used those gardens as a setting for religious narratives and also encounters between people – in particular sexual and loving encounters - which in his paintings he elevated to a spiritual level. The Laing’s painting is an example of that: the dustman has returned home from work and his wife is embracing him in an almost orgasmic ecstasy. The neighbours are watching and offering gifts at this altar of love: the rubbish of his trade, including a teapot, a cabbage leaf and a jam pot.

Image Credit: Guinea Pigs Gardening by Beatrix Potter. Courtesy of F Warne & Co & Victoria and Albert Museum.
CC: But the exhibition also features other high profile artists from a range of time periods and art movements. What do you think is interesting about viewing these contrasting pieces together in the same exhibition?
AB: They hang together in a really interesting way. The exhibition has a very strong central narrative about gardens providing a backdrop for artists to experiment and to frame human drama. Gardens just don’t lose their charm for artists! There are lots of advantages to showing the 100 years in the exhibition. It includes the development of some strong painters in the UK, and there are links back to France which are acknowledged by the Monet along with a Bonnard. I felt there was a good strand of illustrated literature through this period. I also like the idea that visitors may come to see a particular group of artists because they like them, say the Pre-Raphaelites, and in the process meet Stanley Spencer and Francis Bacon and get excited about something new that they might have thought was more challenging. Or visa versa, fans of 20th century paintings by Spencer, William Roberts and Eric Gill might have never considered Cicely Mary Barker as anything other than decorative and childish. But when they are confronted with her original watercolours for the Flower Fairies alongside Pre-Raphaelite powerhouses like Burne-Jones, they find she was an exceptional painter. And Beatrix Potter? Well! Her garden landscapes are beautiful. But who can’t be delighted by her guinea pigs gardening?!

CC: In a contemporary age of growing industrialism, do you think artists are still taking inspiration from the natural world in the same way as those in the exhibition?
AB: They absolutely are. The exhibition finishes with two works by Mat Collishaw from 2011 and 2012. One of these is Venal Muse in which Collishaw has created extraordinary flowering plants such as lilies, planted in little heaps of rubbish and surrounded by nettles. They are resin but look absolutely real. Each of these works is named after a British waste management company. The petals of the flowers are actually blistered and diseased. They look like pieces of flesh and the word “venal” comes from this - they appear to have a venereal disease. They are a reflection on our destruction of beautiful nature and spaces around us.

Image Credit: Mat Collishaw Courtesy of the Artist and Blain Southern
CC: And to finish… do you have a favourite work?
AB: There are some big highlights - seeing The Dustman or The Lovers hung next to Spencer’s The Betrayal on loan from Ulster Museum is a special moment. They were both painted for a series Spencer envisaged. He never found a building to amass them together. Thomas Gotch’s A Golden Dream on loan from the Harris in Preston is also a revelation. It was displayed at the Laing in 1910 and this is the first time it has returned! The wonderful Water Lillies, Setting Sun by Monet from the National Gallery really has to be seen. It is a dance of pink and gold across the canvas - impossible to reproduce well. It truly is enchanting.

Image Credit: Waterlilies Setting Sun Claude Monet c National Gallery London
The Enchanted Garden runs until 7 October at The Laing Art Gallery, New Bridge Street, Newcastle upon Tyne, NE1 8AG

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