A for Artists’ Gardens

If beauty lies in the eye of the beholder, then composition lies in the eye of the artist.

Paul Cezanne and his contemporary Gustave Caillebotte regarded their gardens as both a work place and a retreat. For Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth it was a gallery. William Morris and the American naturalist John James Audubon used their gardens as a source of subject matter, while the Spanish Impressionist Joaquin Sorolla created for himself an evocative Moorish patio. Give an artist a plot of land and what Patrick Heron called ‘the painterly consciousness’ comes into play, so that the artist cannot pass through a garden without instinctively framing, and often correcting, the view.

Some artists paint what they see. Others paint what they feel. “I know I can’t paint nature, but I enjoy struggling with it,” Pierre-Auguste Renoir confided to a friend.

Oddly enough good artists don’t necessarily make good gardeners. The American Impressionist Childe Hassam relied on the inspirational garden of a friend, the poet Celia Thaxter, for his vibrant paintings, while Claude Monet’s neighbour Frederick Frieseke was as dependent on his wife’s green-fingered skills as Renoir was on the paysanne qualities of his wife Aline.

Apart from the historic links between art and gardening (in ancient China the two were almost inseparable, an Eastern link still apparent in the minimalist sculpture gardens of Isamu Noguchi), and the pervasive influence on garden design of artists such as William Kent, Humphry Repton, Morris and Gertrude Jekyll, visual artists tend to compose imaginative and remarkable gardens. They are disinclined to suffer a foolish garden gladly – Monet, for example, could not abide the dull garden he first found at Giverny.

Breaking boundaries is a lonely business and it’s not surprising that so many artists chose to retire from controversy and retreat into the private world of their gardens. Here at least, there was no new thing under the sun, only fresh ways of seeing it.

And ever since the Garden of Eden and its parallel Persian and Islamic paradise gardens, we have never grown tired of looking.
(From Artists’ Gardens, Ward Lock, 1999)