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‘Painting Paradise’, this summer's offering from the Queen's Gallery, is bound to be a hit with tourists and locals alike. The title is a bit of a misnomer as the exhibition extends beyond paintings to include Persian miniatures, late mediaeval botanical prints, early printed horticultural manuals, baroque sun-dials and garden statuary, tapestries, ceramics, vases, decorative objects, photographs and even some fuchsia-shaped earrings made for Queen Victoria from her children's milk teeth. With 150 exhibits covering 400 years, the sheer range of garden-inspired objects from the Queen's collection demonstrates the enormous role that gardens play in the British consciousness.
In mediaeval religious paintings of the Virgin Mary, high wattle fences and flowers at the maiden's feet were enough to indicate a garden, but these images often depicted key elements of contemporary gardens: turf benches, tunnel arbours, central wells or fountains. While many in the Middle Ages saw the garden as a foretaste of paradise, under Tudor monarchs gardens became a status symbol. One of the highlights of the exhibition is the massive dynastic painting, The Family of Henry VIII, which shows the English king, in about 1545, proudly embracing his hard won, but short-lived son, Edward. Beside them are the boy's mother, Jane Seymour, whose curiously pale complexion is explained by the fact that she was already dead when the portrait was painted. The king's neglected daughters, Mary and Elizabeth, both hover at the edges of the image though, in fact, both would eventually rule in Henry's place.
Fascinating as it is, this enormous painting appears in the exhibition simply because of the background details; seen through the doorways are what is believed to be the earliest depiction ever of an English garden: the lost garden at Whitehall Palace with its low formal beds and strange heraldic beasts towering over the space on high wooden poles. That a garden features at all in the painting demonstrates the importance of horticulture as a symbol of wealth, power and sophistication.
Beside this work is another portrait painted two decades earlier. Small and austere, it depicts Jacopo Cennini, factor to Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de Medici (1463–1503). Cennini was in charge of his master's rural estates north of Florence; as well as overseeing the quarry, olive groves and vineyards, he would have been charged with designing, planting and maintaining the pleasure gardens. The fact that someone in the Medici court bothered to dignify a lowly gardener with a portrait indicates the high status of the profession. Flanked by the tools of his trade – a ledger and pruning knife, there is also a set of keys over his arm, indicating that Cennini was a trusted servant.
By the early 16th century a plethora of gardening manuals, facilitated by the recent invention of the printing press, plus the influx of plant materials from the New world, generated an intense interest in gardening among members of the upper classes. A 1559 Italian sketch of a garden shows the roof of the colonnade planted with low-growing herbs, an early example of roof gardening. Elsewhere, a late-16th-century painting, Pleasure Garden with a Maze by Lodewijk Toeput is, in fact, an allegory of the perils of the senses. Set in a fantastical Venetian landscape, this image of couples cavorting in a labyrinthine garden depicts such improbable elements as a water maze and a three-tiered gondola. Although many of the features were probably invented, the painting was inspired by descriptions of Italian gardens and it reveals just how sophisticated horticulture had become.
Meanwhile gardens continued to carry symbolic significance; Rembrandt's 1638 Christ and St Mary at the Tomb shows the risen saviour, unrecognized in his a straw hat. The rising sun behind him signifies a new dawn for mankind, while his pruning knife and neat, clipped parterre in the foreground assures us that Christ, the gardener, will lead from the earthly garden to the heavenly paradise.
The full splendour of the actual – as opposed to the symbolic – 17th-century garden is epitomized by Leonard Knyff's panoramic, bird's-eye view of Hampton Court. But more exotic details such as cascades, fountains, pavilions, statuary and aviaries are best displayed in smaller, more intimate studies of such gardens as Bushy Park, Chiswick and Kew.
The informal, romantic style of the 18th century is less well represented. Natural landscapes are perhaps less appealing to the royal collector as they demonstrate the grandeur of nature rather than the patron's magnificence. By the 19th century, however, the garden had evolved into a symbol of wholesome, virtuous, domestic life, perfectly expressed by the fecund Queen Victoria and her large family. Edwin Landseer's 1841 Windsor Castle in Modern Times depicts the Queen and her consort against a window that opens onto a garden where the Queen Mother is being wheeled in her bath chair through the neatly trimmed lawns. In the foreground is the rather unsettling image of a pretty child playing with a dead kingfisher – symbol of peace – plucked from a pile of dead game that Albert has brought for Victoria.
The Edwardian era is represented by luxurious watercolours of Beatrice Emma Parsons, one of the few women who managed to make a living from her paintings. For her clientele, made up largely of London's sophisticated, gallery-going public, Parson's paintings captured the rare and transient appeal of a rural mid-summer.
While clearly tracing the development gardens since the Middle Ages, this exhibition also reveals the peculiar horticultural tastes of Britain's royal collectors, from the elegant approach to the kitchen garden at Sandringham – designed to meet the culinary demands of large weekend parties – to the rare birds that Prince Albert collected for the gardens at Buckingham Palace, from the moss-lined hermitage created for Queen Charlotte at Windsor Home Park, to the strange heraldic beasts with which King Henry VIII branded his gardens at Whitehall. The exhibition will be fascinating to garden historians interested in artefacts and documentary evidence; it will also be a delight to garden lovers and ‘royal watchers’.
The catalogue by Vanessa Remington with contributions from Sally Goodsir and foreword by Sir Roy Strong is published by the Royal Collections Trust, 2015. 312 pp. (hbk), over 300 colour illus. ISBN 978 1 909741 08 9