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Painting the Modern Garden

We wanted to catch the exhibition ‘Painting the Modern Garden – Monet to Matisse’ at the Royal Academy before it closes on Wednesday and we managed to get there today. The problem was that many others had the same idea so it was very busy with a crowd of art lovers as colourful as the flowers in the paintings on the walls.

The exhibition includes paintings by a group of artist–gardeners produced during Monet’s lifetime – impressionists, post impressionists and members of the early 20th century avant garde. Lots of gardens full of paths, shadows, foliage, dappled sunshine, broad brimmed hats and parasols.

Claude Monet The Rose Walk, Giverny

Claude Monet The Rose Walk, Giverny

The impressionist movement coincided with the ‘great horticultural movement’ which was driven by access to new varieties of plants from the Far East and the Americas and the emergence of various larger, more showy and more colourful hybrid flowers. The artist–gardeners were depicting a romantic impressionistic ‘earthly paradise’ – a fusion of art and nature that was in contrast to urban and industrial expansion. Of course the paintings don’t depict the ‘natural’ world. They are twice removed with the gardens being a man made assemblage of elements and the paintings a specially selected picturesque view at a particular time of day and season – usually with the sun high in the sky and the flowers in full bloom.

The design process for a garden has similarities with that of a building – the need for a strong conceptual idea, a clear circulation system, a sequence of ‘events’, the need for contrast in colour and texture, scale, light and shade etc. For me the best gardens work in tandem with the buildings or garden structures that they contain – walls that continue from the house to the garden to retain soil and enclose and define space, inside–outside space and a variety of spaces that function as external ‘rooms’.

Gardens offer a place for the imagination to roam to create something special that can in return offer beauty and inspiration. A still point away from the hustle and bustle of life that is probably even more necessary now than it was 100 years or more ago in the time of Monet.

Iain Miller