The year is slipping into autumn, an almost imperceptible sideways shuffle into chillier mornings, the afternoon sunlight far mellower than the sultry glow of recent weeks. But I am taking you back to early summer, when peonies collided with roses and the first of the sweet peas from the garden, and the long heatwave was yet to come.
Late May we held a day class - flower arranging inspired by the French Rococo paintings - at the studio. It was an excuse to set aside the dark backdrops we often use for the 'Dutch Masters' effect and create some lighter, more frivolous styling - a tableau curtain of puffy pink clouds against delphinium blue, swathes of silk taffeta, crepe de chine and chiffon ribbons, glossy, creamy shells and fruit. A day dedicated to the unashamedly feminine and frivolous.
We love the paintings of François-Hubert Drouais and Jean-Honoré Fragonard - the flowers, the silk dresses, the light-heartedness. Far less sombre than the Flemish and Dutch paintings of the Golden Age which we often take inspiration from, dominated by symbolism of the transience of life, of death and decay, the 18th century Rococo period embraced exuberance, theatricality and witty playfulness. Colours were softer, art and architecture graceful and elegant, peppered with natural motifs such as shells, leaves and twirling vines; shapes became fluid and asymmetrical in contrast to the formal, geometric style of the previous Baroque period.
The studio filled with Clare de Lune and Coral Charm peonies, blowsy roses, clematis, geums and ranunculus. Each of the students created a lavish floral centrepiece using flower frogs and chicken wire for structure, then intricate stems of spindly foliage, frilly focal flowers and oodles of the fine, gestural accents - pansies, alliums and fritillaries. We styled a still-life 'tableau' of petals, silk, shells and coral and each masterpiece was nestled in among them. It is always a delight to see how, with the same ingredients and colours, each arrangement varies so dramatically from the next. Every one so edible, somehow, like decadent cakes, sugary concoctions of periwinkle and lavender, peach and coral, and gold. Fittingly we had indulgent pavlovas laid on for dessert, crisp white meringues laden with strawberries, whipped cream and lemon curd.
Just a fortnight later and the wild dog-rose was out in the hedgerows. I love these whirling briars so much. Florists are often asked their favourite flowers but I can never seem to answer that question; I'm too greedy; for me it changes depending on the season, the month, the week even. In June, however, it is these wild roses, white and pale pink, so fragile and fleeting. They are nightmarish to condition, the stems and hind-sides of the leaves smothered with cruel, hooked thorns. But despite this I think they are perfection, and so back to the studio they come by the bucket-load and the girls roll their eyes, don their gloves and bravely set to...
Early June the roses erupt into their first flush. Late last year we planted a hundred or so in a freshly cleared plot beside the polytunnel - all bare root and sent down from Essex by our supplier Nina who was emigrating overseas and selling off her shrub roses. We ploughed trenches in the cold ground and planted the uninspiring looking collections of brown sticks. Growing is such an act of faith - it takes waiting and patience (and manure) to pay off, eight months in this case. But then there they came - primrose yellow and pink and coffee, and we're still cutting buckets of them now twice a week. Roses - old fashioned garden roses like these, are the ultimate luxury. They are short-lived and a pain to condition and transport, but for sheer beauty and scent they are unsurpassable, and we use them in almost every arrangement and bouquet throughout the summer and autumn. I am never happier than on those early Hampshire mornings in my dungarees, cutting roses into jars of fresh water to head back to London with.
Our first June class was an 'ode' to the garden rose, the most beloved and venerated flower in the world, and for good reason. Bouquets and arrangements were a mingling of exquisite hybrid teas, musks, damasks and noisettes and the studio was filled with the fragrant lemon-honey scent of their perfume all day. Among my favourites of our current crop are the faded chocolate-copper 'Julia’s Rose', 'Cornelia', a hydrid musk with rosette petals fading from apricot to copper to pink, and 'Hot Chocolate', a smoky velvety russet brown floribunda. We explored ways of using rose foliage, too, which is equally as valuable as the flowers in some cases - 'Rubrifolia', particularly, for its grey leaves ringed with serrated maroon edges.
Now that it's turning cooler we know we only have another couple of months of rose-cutting before the winter sets in, and it'll be another long wait to have them back again. Another example of nature gentling coaxing us to live in the moment. Many weeks later these blooms are long gone, becoming compost to nourish future growth, and the cycle goes on.
On Monday the roof of our next poly tunnel went up, 40% more bed space than our current tunnel and beside it a triangular plot for a load of new shrubs. The garden expands again. Driving back, through a clear, warm afternoon, we talked about how fast time is passing, how this spring/summer seemed an insurmountable body of work only a few months ago, and how quickly it has sped by. We are both now in our thirties - is this the age these sorts of musings become commonplace? I feel like we talk about it a lot lately. And Jess said something like 'even the conversation we've just had is already over, it will never come again. What we have left is memory, and so we have to make as many happy, beautiful memories as we can.'
That is why photographs are so important, too, and keeping some kind of a diary. I don't have a particularly good memory; Jess can remember vividly days and details from our childhood, whereas mine are more hazy, more of a feeling than an image in my mind. But when I look back through photographs, even these, from just a few weeks ago, they bring back a whole flood of detail - the music we listened to, what we talked about, the food we ate, the flowers we arranged. Of course some days were wet and grey and headache-y, I don't mean to be trite, but they all make up the meandering path to the present moment, and how lucky we are to be able to look back at these split-second captures, and to appreciate them in such detail through the eye of the lens.
Our Flower School sessions, excluding Christmas workshops, run throughout the UK growing season, April to October, so that we can use as many locally grown flowers as possible and explore naturalistic floral design that is truly evocative of the season. Our last 'garden-grown' workshop of 2018 will be held on 5th & 6th October at the studio. We have two spaces left; the schedule, full info and tickets are available here. If you are interested in receiving news of our Spring and Summer 2019 classes please sign up to our newsletter (on the right at the top of this page) to be the first to receive dates and details!