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Interest in allotments has waxed and waned over the years. Originally they were intended for the poor, as compensation for the loss of common land brought about by the enclosures. In the early part of the 20th century there were about one and a half million allotments in Britain, supplying many of the fresh vegetables eaten by the poor. After 1918 numbers declined. There was a resurgence during the Second World War as a result of the Dig for Victory campaign. By the end of the 20th century the number of allotments in use had fallen to just over 200,000.
Now, however, rising food prices, an active interest in eating a healthier diet and concerns about green issues have reversed the trend, so that there are currently over 300,000 allotments in use with about 100,000 people on waiting lists for one.
My first encounter with an allotment was in my mid-20s. A friend of mine from university had, upon qualifying as a solicitor, turned his back on the City and joined a small practice in Devon. I used to visit him from time to time and one of the ‘highlights’ of the weekend was a trip to dig the allotment. It was not for me, a weekend was enough to convince me that I could never live away from London, and I did not give any further thought to allotments for many years.
Then, two or three years ago when, escaping from a weekend conference for a couple of hours, I walked around Oxford and was surprised to see many well-cared for allotments in intensive use. About that time, the National Gardens Scheme, unusually, added a couple of allotments to their annual list of gardens open to the public for charity and, some weeks later, I was impressed by the way a small strip of land next to the railway line just off Richmond Green in South-West London was so intensively used.
My interest having been awakened, I was intrigued to learn that Tessa Newcomb was bringing out a book about allotments. I have been attracted to Tessa’s work for sometime and, over the last five years or so, my wife and I have collected her paintings. Many of Tessa’s paintings are of the Suffolk countryside where she lives, although of late she has been tempted to paint street scenes of Paris, but she has produced some extraordinary still-lifes that remind me of the work of Winifred Nicholson. Her work has a deceptive simplicity, as there is far more depth to her pictures than a superficial viewing might suggest, but above all there is a feeling of warmth and, in many cases, humour. Consequently, I was interested to learn what Tessa had to say about allotments as well as how she painted them, although I had previously seen one or two paintings of allotments at exhibitions of her work at the Crane Kalman Galery.
Tessa is, of course, a painter and not a writer and this small book features reproductions of over 100 of her paintings and sketches of sites in and around allotments from the last ten years or so, but not many words. Indeed, her words, which number only about 10,000, are rather overwhelmed by the foreword by Richard Mabey (about 500 words) and the introduction by Philip Vann (about 4,000 words). Tessa freely admits her simple approach to the writing:
Throughout the year I wrote down my observations on allotments, folding and tearing the pieces of paper – which sometimes only contained a single line – then dropping the numerous fragments into a drawer. Someone once said to me, ‘If you’ve got a good sentence, save it, put it into a drawer for later.’ Later on, I retrieved all the pieces of paper, taping them together – like consequences – putting them in order in different envelopes under various chapter headings.
In fact, this produces a charming patchwork quilt of ideas that do complement the paintings, it is just that I wished for more! To compound my disappointment was the duplication of some of the passages in the foreword and in the introduction – with so few of Tessa’s own words it was a shame to have so many of them quoted in advance so that, when reading Tessa’s own words, there was occasionally a profound sense of déjà vu.
Tessa’s writing is, as one would expect from the process described above, fairly staccato – most paragraphs are under 40 words in length and some have only a dozen words. Nevertheless, she does conjure some interesting images in very few words and some of the stories she tells are very moving. Despite my reservations it is an enjoyable read, but of course no one would really buy a book by Tessa Newcomb just for the words. It is the illustrations that make the book and they are, in the main, stunning and well worth the purchase price. In addition to over 100 paintings and sketches by Tessa there are some photographs by her partner, Telfer Stokes, of some of the scenes which have gone to make up Tessa’s paintings and one photograph of Tessa at work. Frustratingly, there is also an uncaptioned photograph of a woman (presumably Tessa) in a walled garden somewhere which is clearly not Suffolk (unless there is a corner of Suffolk of which I am unaware which has rolling hills and dry-stone walls!). The quality of the reproductions is outstanding and the book is an excellent introduction to Tessa’s work.
Entirely by coincidence, after I composed this review but before I put it onto paper, my wife and I went to Suffolk for a walk and afterwards in an Aldeburgh bookshop came across An Artist in the Garden by Tessa Newcomb and Jason Gathorne-Hardy published earlier this year and which I had somehow missed. This is a description of a year in the Gathorne-Hardy family’s walled-garden in Suffolk illustrated by Tessa but with the words by Jason Gathorne-Hardy. I am afraid that this worked better as a book about gardens, The Adorable Plot however, wins hands down on the illustrations.
The Adorable Plot: Paintings and Writings about Garden Allotments by Tessa Newcomb and Philip Vann is published by John Sansom & Co. 96 pp., colour throughout, £18.50 (pb). ISBN 987-1-906593-73-5