Gardening and art at the National Portrait Gallery

Women’s studies blended with the media biography and botanical illustration

If, as it is claimed, gardening is the new cooking and as there is no perceptible diminution in the popularity of women’s studies, then Five centuries of women and gardens might appear opportunistic. Of course, it is a perfectly serious topic, subject of a small exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery (until 21 January) and of this book, which accompanies and augments—a bit—the exhibition. There is a bigger book struggling to get out here, and exhibition, too. The many tantalising hints of avenues that would yield matter of interest and importance make this either inspirational or frustrating depending on the reader’s temperament.

One connection that may some day be followed more fully is the relationship between women’s gardening, botanising and the collecting of art and antiquities in the 18th century. Queen Charlotte is an interesting example, as is her friend, the Duchess of Portland. The philanthropic initiatives of the beautiful Daisy, Countess of Warwick hint at another connection, to a wider circle within the Arts and Crafts Movement.

It is possible that a random sample of the public, if asked to name famous gardeners of the present day, would answer with more women than men. The power of television, however, would probably ensure a place among them for Monty Don, who has supplied the introduction to Garden mania, a compilation of delightful visual references from gardening plans and designs from the past. Every imaginable garden ornament and structure is catered for in this fat little illustrated compendium.

The anatomy of flowers by Arthur Harry Church (1865-1937) seems to come from almost another planet. David Mabberley introduces the outstanding botanical illustrations now in the collection of the Natural History Museum, by this unjustly little known Oxford academic. He relates the story of Church’s reclusive and often tragic life, immured in the department of botany, lecturing and preparing courses, rather than travelling and gaining recognition for his remarkable artistic talent. Most of the drawing were unknown during Church’s lifetime and are published here for the first time. This scientific draughtsmanship of the highest quality and only incidentally art, but the links with surrealism and the work of artist Georgia O’Keeffe are immediately apparent.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'The new cooking'

Appeared in The Art Newspaper Archive, 109 December 2000