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Art Editorial

sapphopic.jpg The garden party of the year

The Laing Art Gallery are bringing together works from Beatrix Potter to Claude Monet, Stanley Spencer to Vanessa Bell, and all under the gazebo of The Enchanted Garden, an exhibition intent on exploring the garden as a stage for the extraordinary, the magical, the atmospheric and the nostalgic.

Never let it be said that we don’t love a garden. They are part of our DNA as writers such as George Orwell recognised when he noted: “All the culture that is most truly native centres around things which even when they are communal are not official – the pub, the football match, the fireside, the back garden and the ‘nice cup of tea’.” Gardens are neither inside nor out, are private and yet public, and it’s this curious, slippery, nature that has surely attracted artists to use them not as mere backdrops, but grand stages where the dramatic can and does happen – from the firework display of a Monet water-lily pond to a stolen kiss.

Of course, if you conjure up an image of “a garden”, you may think of a tranquil scene featuring a white cottage with maybe some roses climbing around the door and The Enchanted Garden opens with artists and writers celebrating, or reminiscing over, this traditional view, artists such as Helen Allingham, who have long-created a sense of nostalgia and enchantment through scenes of idyllic settings at a time when the world was changing at a great pace. And then there is Beatrix Potter, whose meticulous and playful capturing of animal adventures in the vegetable garden, still manage to enrapture us to this day. Her work can be seen alongside Cicely Mary Barker’s magical – and also educational – Flower Fairies watercolours.

The exhibition features 90 paintings, works on paper and books, and such scope has allowed the curator Amy Barker to really dig deep in a quest to cover all aspects of the garden. And at the other end of the scale from what one might (unkindly) term the ‘chocolate box’ view we are also presented with a section titled Abstracting the Garden. This will include pieces by some of the giants of 20thcentury art including work by Francis Bacon, Patrick Heron, Frances Hodgkins and Newcastle University Fine Art lecturer Victor Pasmore. Amy Barker: “Exploring the magical qualities of gardens in art has been a wonderful experience as a curator. Visiting gardens that inspire, such as at Charleston and Sissinghurst, gives a full sense of the impact these spaces have on our hearts and souls. The human instinct to grow and nurture combines with our endless creativity and the waywardness of nature combine to create masterpieces outside and within.” 

A section entitled The Ordinary made Extraordinary features work in which mystical and religious scenes take place in ordinary gardens and landscapes. A trio of pieces by Dante Gabriel Rossetti introduce the notion of early Renaissance paintings, pre-Raphael. (Paintings by the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (formed 1848) informed the work of mid-20thcentury artists William Roberts and Eric Gill.) And this section will also include one of the highlights of the exhibition: the Laing’s The Lovers or The Dustman by Stanley Spencer shown alongside his The Betrayal on loan from National Museums Northern Island.

Another highlight is Simeon Solomon’s Sappho and Erinna in a Garden at Myeline (pictured), one of the real draws at the Queer British Art show at Tate Britain last year. It casts the garden as a truly magical environment and will be shown alongside works by Edward Burne-Jones, Albert Moore and Charles Robinson’s images for Frances Hodgson Burnett’s novel The Secret Gardenand Walter Crane’s illustrations for Oscar Wilde’s The Selfish Giant

The dramatic and painterly possibilities of light and shade in the garden often drove artists to create extraordinary and delicate works. Dod Proctor, for instance, whose The Orchard will sit alongside Harold Knight’s In the Spring Time, as dappled sunshine emanates from the canvases and draws us into idyllic summer days. And then we have Claude Monet, whose spectacular Water-Lilies, Setting Sun – on loan from the National Gallery – brings together light, shade and nature in an iconic example of impressionist use of gardens in painting.During the late 19th and 20th century, groups of British artists and designers frequently congregated around particular villages and houses, where gardens played an important role. William Morris’s gardens at Red House and then Kelmscott Manor supplied endless fascination, and they also attracted his daughter Mary, who drew, photographed and embroidered scenes and flowers from the gardens at Kelmscott. Philip Webb, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Edward Burne-Jones were all inspired by and worked in these spaces.

Similarly, the gardens of Charleston farmhouse, near Firle in East Sussex, nearby Monk’s House and those of Sissinghurst Castle were timelessly captured by members of the Bloomsbury Set. Vanessa Bell, Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West all had husbands who gardened with dedication and creativity and provided them with spaces in which to be inspired, to work and in Woolf’s case recover from serious bouts of depression. This section includes paintings by Duncan Grant, Vanessa Ball and Roger Fry, the original design for Trellis wallpaper by William Morris and Philip Webb, watercolours by May Morris, first editions of Sackville-West’s poem The Garden and Woolf’s novel Kew Gardens. Throughout the summer the Laing will celebrate the world of gardens with a full programme of talks and tours, classes and workshops including a two-part Garden Festival of talks on garden design and inspiration, and a lunchtime Garden Lecture series. Details from their website, below.

The Enchanted Garden, 23 June-7 October, Laing Art Gallery, New Bridge Street, Newcastle. laingartgallery.org.uk