- Painting Paradise: The Art of the Garden, 400 Years of Horticultural Art from the Royal Collection
The Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace, London, England 20 March 2015 to 11 October 2015
Created by Vanessa Remington, Senior Curator of Paintings, Royal Collection Trust
Painting Paradise: The Art of the Garden 312pages. ISBN: 978-1-909741-08-9. £29.95.
The belief that the garden can (and should) be taken as a work of art probably dates to its passage from a site of production to the realm of the ornamental, the comforting, and the spiritual. We have come to agree the factors by which we evaluate painting and sculpture—composition, space, materials, technique—can apply with equal appropriateness to our reading of the garden. The resulting judgment may be positive or dismissive of course, but there is widespread acceptance of the idea that at its best the garden shares a level of significance with the plastic and performance arts. The exhibition “Painting Paradise: The Art of the Garden,” turned that normal regard on its head, however, looking not at the garden as artifact, but at how the artifact has appeared in paintings, prints, books, and on (and even as) ceramic objects. It was certainly not the first exhibition to explore the subject; there have even been several within the last two decades.1 What astounded the visitor about this particular exhibition, was the realization that all the material on display came from a single collection held in trust by Elizabeth II, Queen of the United Kingdom. It comprises nearly 200,000 pieces, in mediums that include painting, sculpture, prints, and objects of decorative arts (according to Wikipedia).
The materials in the exhibition fell into three categories: views of gardens, views that explained the design of the garden, and views picturing social activity within a landscape setting. Paintings, engravings, drawings, and printed books joined tall pyramidal tulip vases, inlaid cabinetry, tables of silver, and sets of chinaware. The wealth of artists represented and the variety of their works underscored the richness of the collection and just how popular garden and botanical subjects have been for the fine arts through the centuries and throughout the world. As to subjects, the exhibition offered a mixed lot, at times testing the credulity of the visitor in terms of being about the garden. But with objects so engaging in form, and beautiful in execution, one forgave any license taken by the exhibition’s curator Vanessa Remington. The material was organized chronologically, with the first room displaying works on the theme of Paradise, and gardens dating from the Middle Ages through the Renaissance. Here one encountered a Persian miniature of a garden scene with life centered on an octagonal pool, a sixteenth-century painting of a hedge maze, and a recreation of a bowered turf bench erected in the center of the gallery. Accompanying them were works portraying the botanical garden: herbals, instructive manuals, flower studies, and a selection of the full-blown floral compositions for which the Dutch are justifiably known. The portrait of Jacopo Cennini (1523) by Franciabiglio is indeed handsome, but even more interesting for its being a rare likeness of a Renaissance garden and estate manager. Among all the objects in this first room, dominant was The Family of Henry VIII (British School, c.1545), a stunning rendering of the intricate gold-on-black tracery that ornamented the clothing of the family as well as the walls of the room. The inclusion of this monumental portrait was validated [End Page 137] by the views of the garden glimpsed through the small doorways set at either end of this twelve-foot long panel. A small alcove adjoining the gallery presented printed works from the 16th and 17th centuries, among them John Evelyn’s celebrated Sylva (1670), followed by a transitional space lined with cases.
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On entering the second gallery, attention fell immediately on the...