Mystery in royal garden show
Jan Patience on an exhibition of great gardens depicted in art
AGARDEN, by its very nature, is an artificial construct: an enclosed space in which nature is corralled and tended by a human hand. Art and gardens go hand-in-hand, as do gardens and power. Stella Remington, curator of paintings at the Royal Collection, and guiding hand behind Painting Paradise: The Art of the Garden, at The Queen’s Gallery in Edinburgh, says there were three overarching factors behind every great garden in history.
“Gardens were designed to be medicinal, for pleasure and they were created to impress,” she explains. “This exhibition sets out to tell the story of the art of the garden.”
Recreating paradise is the key factor which guides artists’ depiction of gardens down the centuries. Painting Paradise explores the many and varied ways in which the garden has been celebrated in art and includes 75 paintings, drawings, books, manuscripts and decorative arts from the Royal Collection, including some of the earliest and rarest surviving records of gardens and plants.
The earthly paradise idea has been strong since the earliest images of the Persian garden started to reach Europe through the many forms of Islamic art that celebrated the garden from the 11th to the 14th centuries. These vivid snapshots into life for the highest echelons of society show an enclosed space with orchards, flowing water, shade and shelter and can be traced back to Persia in the 6th century BC.
Work removed from folios deep within the Royal Collection for an outing to Edinburgh includes the exquisite painted miniature Seven Couples in a Garden, c.1510. One of the earliest illustrated Islamic manuscript in the Collection, it shows a beautiful Persian garden with an octagonal pool, plane and cypress trees, and elaborately tiled pavilions laid with floral carpets.
The detail in this work is infinitesimal yet laden with treasure. The garden is alive with birds, including nightingales (much beloved of Persian poets), parrots, songbirds, doves, heron, egrets and ducks.
Also on show are paintings of landscapes and jewel-like manuscripts, as well as delicate botanical studies. The changing character of the garden is writ large. What stands out is its enduring appeal for artists from the 16th to the early 20th century, including Leonardo da Vinci, Rembrandt van Rijn, Sir Edwin Landseer and Thomas Gainsborough.
Until the sixteenth century, gardens in paintings and manuscripts were conjured up by the artist’s imagination. By the time of the Renaissance, gardens had become status symbols to be employed in royal propaganda.
The wealth of a garden’s owner could be demonstrated through elaborate horticultural features such as obelisks, pergolas, knot designs and topiary. Although in the painting Pleasure Garden with a Maze by Lodewijk Toeput (Pozzoserrato), c.1579–84, the water labyrinth is the artist’s invention, it is inspired by contemporary descriptions of 16th-century Italian formal gardens.
“The USP of this exhibition is the unusual range of objets d’art and paintings,” says Stella Remington. “Very few institutions could tell the story in the way the Royal Collection can. That is a real bonus.”
She also admits that having to whittle the selection down to 75 objects has been a tricky task. “It was very difficult; particularly in the decorative arts. We tried to include the best objects.”
The sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries saw the birth of botanical illustration, florilegia (flower books) and still-life painting. Leonardo da Vinci was the first artist to produce true botanical studies, and the exhibition includes two exquisite examples by the artist.
There is also botanical work on show with an Edinburgh link by calligrapher and miniaturist Esther Inglis (15711624). The daughter of Huguenot refugees who fled from France to Edinburgh to escape persecution, she produced a series which feature decorated French verse embellished with watercolour paintings of native species, such as the humble buttercup.
A beautiful miniature watercolour featuring a buttercup made for Henry, Prince of Wales, eldest son on James I and Anne of Denmark in 1607 is one of the stars of this show.
When asked to select a favourites, Ms Remington picks out A Young Man Seated Under a Tree. This tiny watercolour (12.4x8.9cm) was painted by Isaac Oliver c.1590–95. It depicts a well-dressed young man in black and gold doublet, long leather boots, black broad-brimmed hat and lace-edged boot hose, leaning pensively against a tree. There’s a lavish Tudor knot garden in the background and a loved-up couple strolling along a neat path.
“So much work has been put into trying to place this lovelorn youth,” she says. “But we have not been able to identify him yet. He is surrounded my forget-me-nots and his gloves have been set down by his side. The message is, ‘I am lonely. Come join me.’
“One day someone will come up with the answer to the mystery of who is in man in one of the finest Tudor miniatures.”
Art lovers, there’s a garden of earthly delights waiting for you at the Queen’s Gallery.
A Young Man Seated Under a Tree by Isaac Oliver will be displayed at the Painting Paradise exhibition at Queen’s Gallery, Edinburgh Picture: Royal Collection Trust/Her Majesty the Queen