I write from the makeshift study I have made for myself in the bay window of my flat overlooking the street. It has been raining all morning, that sort of entrenched, steady London rain that you know is likely to persist for the rest of the day. The pavements have a slick gleam to them and the no. 267 trundles by in a mist of street-spray and fogged up windows. For the first time in a week - we’ve been enjoying a rare Indian summer - I am wearing a sweater, though I suspect that later, when I go for a walk, I will step out from this cool old building into a hot blanket of wet air.
The grey scene through the shutters couldn’t be further from the enchantingly beautiful heat wave of the last few days. Yesterday, Jess and I drove up to Oxford early morning, from the bright London dawn descending into a soupy autumnal fog that lay swirling over the valley beyond Watlington and soon burned off to a golden afternoon. Last night on our return there was a smoky haze not unlike those you have in very hot countries, with the sun behind us, coral pink, rimmed with mist. At home I changed into a loose flowing dress that my mother made for me two summers ago and padded around the flat, unpacking, finally, from a few days on the road. It was a hot, silky night, still and very black, one where you stay up late, not doing anything particularly exerting, restless with the mosquitos, bare foot and bare shouldered in September.
I’ve been flicking through Jess’s photographs of our most recent collaboration with photographer and filmmaker Katy Lawrence (you can see her beautiful new website here), who is making a short film for us, a little ‘day in the life of’ story that we'll share later in the autumn. We shot a few scenes in London and then at our cutting garden in Hampshire, where there is still riotous colour and exuberant growth. We cut bucket loads of garden roses, apricot scabious and cosmos, great long tangles of fragrant sweet peas on the vine, and wound around the narrow lanes in search of autumn treasures, filling the Land Rover with curving arches of orange-y rosehips and clematis and boughs of golden apples.
Projects like these are very different to doing for events. Photoshoots have their own pressures, of course, particularly outdoor ones in England. Will the weather hold? Will the light be too strong or too weak? Where will the sun set? Which way is the wind blowing? There are time constraints and location is important. When we were planning these shots we had chosen a precise spot where we had taken photographs before, late last autumn, in the middle of a few intersecting fields where a bridle-path winds through the middle, in a little dip between two rows of trees and hedgerow. This day, though, it was darker and overcast, and the trees cast too long a shadow for filming there and so we moved up the bank into the field beyond where the corn had just been harvested, the stubble a beautiful yellow-gold. It was a different concept, that golden backdrop, but one that proved fortuitous in the end.
Quite an inordinate amount of ‘stuff’ came with us into that field - four vehicles, camera equipment, buckets and water and tools and chicken wire strewn among picnic blankets and abandoned aprons. Secateurs, of which we have many, have a habit of disappearing the very moment you need them and a great deal of time seemed to be spent that day trying to locate them amongst the stubble and detritus.
The shape of the arch came together fairly organically. The thing I love about working without the time constraints of an event, where there are usually a lot of other people working around you, is that you are free to stand back more, take ten minutes here and there to sit on the side-lines and decide what to edit, embellish or take away, and time to wander off in search of the perfect forked branch for this section, or a vine to link together a gap between leaves. Katy, multiple cameras in tow, followed us here and there with our baskets of bounty. There was a lot of hooting laughter that afternoon, and occasionally shouts of thorn-induced pain and huffs of frustration. Our foraging missions were accompanied by, rather embarrassingly, entire renditions of the Sound of Music soundtrack, sung in unison. But there was no-one around to hear our high-pitched harmonies, save a few deer that hastily exited to find peace elsewhere, and the odd pheasant. Later, some dog-walkers from the village passed by. The arch was half erected and Jess's boyfriend was being cheered on, battling an enormously heavy vine from the undergrowth like a writhing snake of bark. All around were buckets of flowers and stray pieces of furniture and ladders, a peculiar scene in the middle of nowhere.
Under the arch we positioned a rusty garden table, an antique found at a London flea market, with a beautiful carved marble top, watery green and speckled with dark markings the colour of seaweed. The light was beginning to wane, a reminder that time was running out. On the table I made an arrangement in a cast iron jardinière of dahlias from an Oxfordshire farm in pinks and yellows darkening to gold, weaving in our sweetpeas and wild sprays of roses from the cutting garden. At the base we had grey-ish pink grasses and tall Japanese anemones with their silky buds. We used a lot of fruit, too, felt-skinned yellow dates and apples and figs that we cut open to reveal their pitted maroon centres.
Dusk fell lazily over the cornfield. We wove in the finishing touches, spindly grasses and wispy gestural cuttings of wild carrot. Wine was opened and we sipped it from the bottle. At some point we glanced around, realizing that we had not seen Katy in some time. I went off in search of her - a photographer abducted at twilight from the middle of the Hampshire countryside seemed unlikely, but nevertheless… She wasn’t along the bridleway, or at her makeshift office in the back of the Land Rover where she had been editing photos earlier, or having a pee in the undergrowth. I started to worry, rehearsing a call to the local police station to state that a pretty blonde with a lot of cameras who knew all the words to The Lonely Goatherd had gone missing on our watch mid photoshoot. Her car was abandoned in the neighboring field and, just when I was beginning to run out of places to look, I spied her - curled prawn-shaped - fast asleep in the boot. Later, she would say that she was ‘just resting her eyes’, but I know a nap when I see one.
As the light faded we put candles out in glass lanterns and votives. The wind picked up then, the anemones trembling and losing their petals in the breeze. Out across the fields a new weather front was rolling in, and with it the blue-grey colours of a storm. The arch shook once or twice, alarmingly, and we felt a few spots of rain on our cheeks, but then, just as suddenly, the wind took another direction to bypass us, the trees stilled, pastoral tranquility restored.
That last hour was one of my happiest this summer, a rare moment of creation and calm together. During events and weddings there is that frenetic momentum, the end of each hour a deadline of its own - this has to be finished, that has to be done, this has to be delivered, that has to go over there. It is a relentless, organised whirlwind of petals and vessels and stopwatches going off. And then, at the end of it all, there is the bride, and that moment of handing over the bouquet, sometimes minutes before the ceremony. The last ribbon is cut, the final elements tweaked, and we shrink away, often never seeing the results of what we have been working on throughout the final stages of the day and evening. We don’t see those flowers by candlelight. We often don’t have a chance to photograph them. We don’t have time to really stand back and just look. Last weekend, which I will share more of here in due course, there was a rare wedding that we actually attended, as well as created the flowers for, and that was special on so many levels. But that’s another story for another day.
That evening in the dwindling twilight, there was no-one else to see what we had made. We were the only guests to attend a party that would never happen; the candles burned only for us. In some ways, this was sad, a waste of such a pretty scene, so many beautiful flowers that any minute would need to be taken down again and schlepped back on the motorway late at night, their moment in the spotlight horribly short. But the cameras were there, and here are some of the results, lasting tokens that will endure indefinitely, and how extraordinary digital photography is, that it could capture the atmosphere of that night, and those different, shifting grades of soft light. I, without a camera, stood back and watched. Every few moments the colours would change, quite dramatically at first and then gently for those last seconds, as though a dimmer were being ever so slightly adjusted and the candles burned harder, their flames flickering, replacing the natural light with their fiery glow. Soon all I could see were the outlines of trees on the horizon and the moving shapes of the girls somewhere in the space between, carrying lanterns and arranging tripods. Some of the flowers disappeared to be eclipsed by the blackness, others, in the soaking light of the candles, stood out, the prominent faces of creamy roses saturated by the beam of hot flames on either side.
Later, in fumbling darkness but for the headlights of one car, we loaded up and left for Bristol, Oxford and London respectively, driving away in convoy down the rutted track, scattering startled rabbits and peahens. The cab of the van was filled with the scent of roses and beeswax all the way back to London. It was very late when I reached home and I collapsed into bed exhausted, the next morning finding that I had done so with my pyjamas back to front, a little collection of bruised ivory rose petals and a pair of previously-thought-lost secateurs beside the bed. They always turn up in the end.