Perhaps I owe it to flowers that I became a painter. ~ Claude Monet
We are on the edge of spring. I know this because every year there is an almost imperceptible shift in the quality of the light about this time. The first few days of sunshine all strung together. The postman says good morning almost cheerfully, which he never does. In an exhilarating, yet brief, moment yesterday afternoon I actually removed my cardigan. I take photographs of the light through the trees in the wood. With the fog of winter lifting and our tulips growing at an alarming rate, it’s easy to get carried away - it will probably now snow all through April - but there it is, the foretaste of misty summer mornings, and lighter evenings; later nights; abundant rose bushes.
Last week Jesse and I went to see Painting the Modern Garden: Monet to Matisse at the Royal Academy. Everyone has been raving about this show and it is magical, which is why the rest of the country and his dog were there also (it was packed) but if you are prepared to elbow your way to the front, which to see a Matisse I am, it’s a visual, intellectual, masterfully curated delight (on until 20 April in London).
Making our way through this exhibition, I was struck by how much I adore white gardens. The cool, lavish flakes and flashes against varying greens, the evening glow - pale roses, spectral ivory lilies against dark foliage. “Cram, cram, cram, every chink and cranny,” Vita Sackville West, who created her renowned white garden at Sissinghurst, wrote of her gardening style in 1955. The exhibition itself is like this - room after room of paintings and silent crowds - Monet’s gardens at Argenteuil, Vétheuil and Giverny, municipal gardens, Mediterranean gardens, imaginary gardens, gardens on hot nights and blanketed with fresh snow, etched in creamy swathes of paint, or in little dabs denoting palms and shadow. Henri le Sidaner’s The Table in the White Garden (1900) totally floored me. You just know instinctively that it is dusk; the lights inside the house are glowing, the table is made with crisp linen, there is the dense scent of the roses in the vase cut from the garden earlier in the evening. The painting is unpopulated, but you are inside it, looking back at the house; you have drunk champagne a little too fast, you are in love, suspenseful; the evening is uncertain.
The Scottish poet and gardener Ian Hamilton Finlay wrote that“certain gardens are described as retreats when they are really attacks”. Van Gogh’s Daubigny’s Garden in Auvers (1890) is precisely this - tumultuous - a frenzied render of the outbreak of summer. Gustave Caillebotte’s Nasturtiums captures ingeniously the character, the ‘Nasturtium-ness’ of these plants - the frailty, and vivaciousness - piquant colour and shield-shaped leaves writhing across a thickly textured mauve background.
In contrast, Roses, a 1893 painting by P.S. Krøyer of his wife, is as calming as the tranquil scene it presents. Framed by a large Alba Maxima rose bush in the garden of a house they rented in Skagen - a fishing village in the north of Jutland where they summered - she reclines in her deckchair, with their dog Rap asleep beside her.
There are Gertrude Jekyll’s old army boots, painted by William Nicholson, which she wore from her forties right up until her death - “'I suppose no horse likes a new collar, I am quite sure I do not like new boots”. A hot cat, humorously depicted, in Sieste au jardin, by Pierre Bonnard (1914) (there is a particular stance that cats have when they are unpleasantly hot that is hilariously accurate in this painting, whether intentional or not). French Fauvist painter, Raoul Dufy’s The Little Palm Tree. A cottage garden by Gustav Klimt. Letters from Monet to his gardeners, dried botanical specimens, old photographs, impatient journal entries, excited sketches and lists. Henri Matisse’s The Rose Marble Table, painted in 1917. The Spanish painter, Joaquin Sorolla y Bastida’s paintings of the Sorolla House gardens, paintings by German-Jewish impressionist Max Liebermann, and the little-known works of Catalan painter Santiago Rusiñol.
Many will visit this exhibition for the Monets. They are dotted among the 120-odd paintings spread through the interconnecting rooms, building to the grand finale - the Agapanthus Triptych - three massive canvases that took Monet three years to complete and have never before been shown together in the UK. A monumental, exquisitely moving vision of water and water lilies, and changing light. And for these alone, I would see it again and again. But I loved also the enormous diptych by Edouard Vuillard - The Garden of Le Relais a Villeneuve Sur Yonne - perhaps because I had never seen them before, and they were new to me, so evocative and nostalgia-inducing, so redolent of summer afternoons in a hazy garden, lazy reading and intermittent conversation, drifting and lingering. I was back in Southern France again, back in my twenties, and bathed in that golden light peculiar to that part of the world. But for me, most of all, the show represented a glorious celebration of every kind of garden, from the back yard to the herb garden, from riotous borders to fastidiously raked gravel, from city courtyards to vegetable patches - the garden in every mood and state and weather. And the gardeners, too, who toiled to create them.