The Artist Gardener

So enthralled was William Morris with his garden at Kelmscott Manor, that his friend and romantic rival Dante Gabriel Rossetti often referred to him in correspondence as ‘Morris the gardener’. Morris’ philosophies in turn inspired a generation of Arts and Crafts garden designers who blurred further the already thin line between artist and gardener. Never was this line more obscure than when Gertrude Jekyll, hindered by her failing eyesight, swapped paintbrush for trowel, and allowed her passion for painting to inform her choice of plant and colour. Following the prescriptions of Jekyll, our very own Margaret Nettlefold emulated her idol and mastered both disciplines; not only designing the gardens at Winterbourne, but establishing herself as an accomplished, amateur watercolourist. This long tradition of cross pollination continues even today; Anne Parouty has spent the last year crafting a beautiful exhibition based on her residency here at Winterbourne.

Margaret Nettlefold, Watercolour, Moor Green, Birmingham 1901
Moor Green, Birmingham, Margaret Nettlefold, watercolour, 1901

“But like everything else, in good gardening it must be done just right, and the artist-gardener finds that hardly the placing of a single plant can be deputed to any other hand than his own; for though, when it is done, it looks quite simple and easy, he must paint his own picture himself – no one can paint it for him.” Gertrude Jekyll, Wood and Garden, 1899

Anne uses plant material from the garden to produce cyanotype impressions, a process she stumbled across whilst brushing up on her French: “I lived in Paris and had a darkroom in the cellar of a friend. I liked to work when everyone was asleep, often listening to the radio, it helped my French and the programmes were interesting. One night I found myself listening to a programme about silver mining. As I rocked my developing dishes I heard how most silver came from Peru, mined by indigenous Peruvian children who earned a pittance and generally found themselves indebted to the company store and unable to leave. Conditions were hot and dangerous and for protection the children sacrificed their most precious possession, Coca-Cola, to their native gods. At the time the world’s main consumer of silver was the photographic industry. I decided to find another way to make my pictures. Research into alternative photographic processes led me to cyanotypes, which use the light sensitive properties of iron-salts. I have been working with them ever since.”

Tetrapanax papyrifer 'Rex', cyanotype, Anne Parouty, 2015
Tetrapanax papyrifer ‘Rex’, Anne Parouty, cyanotype, 2015

The process was invented by the English astronomer Sir John Herschel in 1842 and was quickly identified as a cheap and reliable way of reproducing documents and drawings; blueprints. First, a receptive surface such as watercolour paper, is treated with a mildly photosensitive solution, namely iron salts, and then it is dried in darkness. Once dry, plant material is secured to the treated paper and exposed to light. After some time, a positive image is fixed when unreacted iron is washed away with running water. Anna Atkins, who is often credited as the world’s first female photographer, pioneered the use of cyanotype imaging as a means of documenting the natural world, producing a series of books in the mid-19th century. Like Atkins, Anne makes photographs which result from direct contact with plant material. However, unlike Atkins, Anne prefers to use living plant material, rather than dried. She believes the still functioning bio-chemical properties of the material contribute to the resulting image.

“I must have unmistakable suggestions of gardens and fields, and strange trees, boughs, and tendrils, or I can’t do with your pattern…” William Morris, lecturing on design

Anne preparing a giant Tetrapanax leaf in her Winterbourne studio
Anne preparing a giant Tetrapanax leaf in her Winterbourne studio

There has been no shortage of plant material for Anne to experiment with but there is one plant in particular that captured her imagination: “One of the best parts of the residency for me has been working with the gardeners, coming to see the garden from their perspective and with their insights; as it was with Tetrapanax papyrifer ‘Rex’. Conversations with the staff began over which leaves I might take from these great architectural plants. Over the weeks our discussions led us into the fascinating botanical and cultural history of the Rice-paper plant. As an artist T. ‘Rex’ offers particular challenges from its unfolding as a small leaf in the spring through to the great spreading leaves of summer and autumn that defy even the largest of my print frames. One year isn’t enough to come to terms with T. ‘Rex’ and the journey will go on.”

You can find our Tetrapanax in the Asian section of the Geographical Borders. It truly is the most architectural of the hardy ornamentals. Our long established specimen is now about 2.5 metres tall and its strikingly palmate leaves regularly exceed half a metre in width. Tetrapanax will drop their giant leaves in the autumn and perform best the following year when given a sunny sheltered spot to overwinter. Severe frosts will sometimes damage the main stems but suckers are invariably thrown up from the base in the following spring. Fittingly, for centuries the pith of Tetrapanax has been extracted and rolled into a fine paper used by Chinese artists. Europeans often refer to this paper as rice paper; a misnomer based on the mistaken belief that it is obtained from rice.

“For planting ground is painting a landscape with living things; and as I hold that good gardening takes rank within the bounds of the fine arts, so I hold that to plant well needs an artist of no mean capacity… It is not the paint that make the picture, but the brain and heart and hand of the man who uses it.” Gertrude Jekyll, Wood and Garden, 1899

Tetrapanax 'Rex' still in full leaf in late October
Tetrapanax ‘Rex’ still in full leaf in late October
The undersides of the leaves have a rich, velvety, quality
The undersides of the leaves have a rich, velvety, quality
New growth emerges from thick central stems
New growth emerges from thick central stems

You can see more of Anne’s cyanotype impressions, including the frame defying ‘Rex’, in our Coach House Gallery from the 6th of November or click here for further information.

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11 thoughts on “The Artist Gardener

  1. What a lovely way of captured the beauty of foliage. I love good foliage, almost more than flowers. I also love the arts and crafts movement and the pre-raphelites – great examples in Birmingham Art Gallery


    1. Thanks Helen. Be sure to make time to visit the Barber Institute if you stop by. They have a great collection of artwork from the 13th to the 20th century and they’re only a short walk form our door.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Whilst reading this blog I thought of Gertrude Jekyll and her photographs. Unable to paint the flowers in her gardens she turned to the newly developed Autochrome process, the first practical means of colour photography.


    1. Another Jekyll fan! You will find plenty of friends here. I’m not familiar with her use of Autochrome, although I’m aware that some of her own photographs do appear in some editions of her books, presumably these were taken using the aforementioned process.


      1. Colour photographs would have been taken using autochrome, it was the only method available at the time. I know she also took black and white pictures, her ones of children digging for example, these couldn’t have been taken using colour as this had a very long exposure.


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