An American Harvest

‘Farm, harvesting vegetables’ – a series of glass negatives from the Harris & Ewing Collection at the Library of Congress

It can be a dangerous moment for a photograph when no one can remember the identity of the people depicted in it or the place it was taken.  When the context is lost, its value and significance become eroded, with a real possibility that one day it might be thrown away.

Fortunately, these atmospheric photographs showing individuals and families harvesting vegetables have been preserved, even though they have become disconnected from their history.  Details of names, location, and a precise date for the photographs are now lost, but they remain a luminous record of a community and a glimpse into their way of life that existed in America approximately one hundred years ago, that might otherwise be forgotten.

Thought to date between 1915 – 1923, the photographs are the work of an un-named photographer from the Harris & Ewing photographic studio, whose archive is now held in the Library of Congress.  Founded in 1905 by George W Harris and Martha Ewing and based in Washington DC, the company supplied newspapers with portraits of well-known people to illustrate their stories – but sometimes ventured out of the confines of the studio to document events of interest.

The collective title devised by library staff for these photographs is ‘Farm, harvesting vegetables’, and it’s unclear if the harvesters are collecting vegetables as workers employed on a farm, or for their own use.  It’s interesting to see that, unlike today, the baskets, boxes and cloth sacks they are using are all made out of natural materials rather than plastic.

The harvesters in the Harris & Ewing photographs appear reticent in front of the camera, perhaps unused to, and uncomfortable with, the attention.  A girl with a large bow in her hair helps with the tomato harvest by placing the large, glossy fruits carefully into a basket, but cannot find the courage to look directly at the photographer, while her mother looks rather guarded at the intrusion into their quiet activity.

Others seem happier to co-operate – two men, both wearing ties, pose with a large basket piled high with squash and a young man empties a basket of beans into a wooden box attached to his bicycle.

These dignified people look as though their origins were once in Europe – but as they live their lives in a new country, adopting its clothes, and gathering its crops of sweetcorn, squash and beans, they have been transformed into Americans.

Family group gathering corn cobs and tomatoes

A man in a straw hat holds an aubergine as he inspects his harvest

Two girls, possibly twins, fill a basket with tomatoes while behind them an man harvests corn cobs

Young man filling a wooden box attached to his bicycle with beans

A man with a pipe carries his harvest along a road

Further reading:

The Harris & Ewing Collection at the Library of Congress here

Harris & Ewing Photographic Studio Wikipedia entry here

July at Perch Hill

Last week I ventured out of London with some gardening friends for an open day at Perch Hill, the home of Sarah Raven’s garden company.  Established in 1999, the company began by supplying flower and vegetable seeds, each variety having first been tested for quality in Sarah Raven’s own garden, and providing courses about growing cut flowers and food crops.

Soon bulbs were added to the seed list, and by the early 2000s the twice yearly catalogues were like a breath of fresh country air, with their modern design, beautiful colour photography (by Johnathan Buckley,) and aspirational lifestyle.  As well as the original seeds and bulbs, today the company offers a vast range of bedding plants, perennials, climbers and roses – all carefully curated and chosen for their vibrant colours and long life in the vase.

Here’s a reminder of how the catalogues used to look:

Entering the famous cutting garden from an adjacent field acting as a car park for the day, we passed through a gap in a hawthorn hedge into a blaze of colour.  Here, a profusion of cosmos, tagetes, gaillardia, eryngium, and gladiolus in vibrant reds, oranges and purples are being trialled (alongside countless other flowers from the catalogue), while next to the hedge surrounding the garden, blue and purple phlox seemed to glow in the semi-shade.

Wandering at leisure around the garden, as well as planting ideas there are plenty of design tips to take away, many of which could be scaled down in a smaller space.  The conical outline of the oast house roof is repeated in the neighbouring Oast garden with several enormous wigwam structures, some supporting clematis ‘Julia Correvon’ with its rich, wine coloured flowers – a reminder how important verticals are in the garden.  These structures supply height all year round without casting much shade, as the canopy of a tree or large shrub would.

Elsewhere in the garden some simple ironwork structures left free of any climbing plants provide effective focal points in the densely planted cottage garden style borders.

Next to the house, a small tree, simple brick paving, a collection of good sized planted pots and a wooden chair make for an inviting place to sit, which could be translated into a much smaller space very effectively.

A perfect drying day ..

Perch Hill is close to some well-known gardens and some of the planting seems to reflect this – the English cottage garden style recalls Sissinghurst, while plants like this extraordinary sanguisorba (see below) echo the exuberant perennial planting at Great Dixter.  I like the way these places seem to be engaged in an exchange of ideas – a planting conversation.

When we visited, these dahlias were just starting to come into flower.  This beautiful rustic wooden fence has weathered to a lovely silvery grey colour.

Roses are a relatively new introduction to the Sarah Raven catalogue, and a welcome one, as it’s always interesting to note which varieties she selects.  Despite an invasion by the local deer, there were still some flowers to see in the rose trial garden.  One of the orange roses (see below) shows an unusual hint of brown, and in the current catalogue some of the roses share these sepia tones.  I imagine these roses would associate well with other contrasting colours, perhaps linking bright pinks and reds.

If you look closely at the next photograph, you’ll see two women in straw hats examining the flowers – it was that kind of place, that kind of day.

Thanks to Louise O’Reilly for organising this enjoyable outing.

There are more open days on 5th and 6th August – Sarah Raven website here

Memories of Some French Gardens

Fillette en robe claire tenant le landau de ses poupées Alfred-Louis Bergoz 1907 – 1920  All images courtesy Bibliothèque Nationale de France

Earlier this year I published a collection of Eugène Blondelet’s atmospheric autochrome photographs of his family enjoying their garden in summer.   Now, I return to the archive at the Bibliothèque National de France to share some more autochromes of vernacular gardens from the early 20th century.

These photographs were taken by amateurs in France between 1907, when the Lumière brothers launched their autochrome process to the general public, and the early 1930s.  While they show some physical damage, and some deficiencies in their composition and exposure, these faults also evoke a sense of the past quite powerfully, capturing a particular time and place that otherwise would have disappeared.

The names of the photographers, the people they recorded and the locations of the gardens now exist only as fragments of information, or have become detached from these images altogether.  But these pieces of narrative still provoke a jolt of memory, allowing us a brief window into past lives, and happy moments enjoyed in their gardens many summers ago.

Fillette au chapeau de paille tenant une fleur Alfred-Louis Bergoz 1907 – 1920

This charming photograph shows a young girl in a light coloured dress and straw hat examining a garden flower.  In the intense sunlight, the asters and California poppies appear almost as pale as her clothes, but at the edge of the photograph their mauve and orange colours are revealed more clearly.

Garçonnet dans un jardin (unknown photographer) 1920 – 1930

The lawn is a dominant feature in this image of a garden, and the grass has been kept long, giving a relaxed feel to the space.  The lush green of the grass seems to have infused the whole image, including the young boy in his shorts and long white socks, posing for the photograph.

Trois enfants au bout d’une allée fleurie (unknown photographer) 1910 – 1920

The scale of this enormous climbing rose is emphasised by three small children, posing next to it in the shady walk-way.  Today, garden photographers avoid intense contrasts of light and shade by shooting early in the morning, or late in the day, but here the harsh sunlight, dark shadows and cascades of pink roses seem to capture the moment of summer heat perfectly.

Mère et son jeune fils dans le jardin (unknown photographer) 1920 – 1930

By the standards of modern photography, this portrait of a mother and boy in a garden is slightly out of focus, and over exposed, with the side of each person facing the sun bleached almost white.  This is repeated on the plants, highlighting their leaves, and revealing their texture, but the overall effect is both tranquil, and otherworldly.

Jeunes femmes en robe blanche dans un jardin (unknown photographer) 1907 – 1920

These two young women are posing in a flower garden, in front of a house.  The flowerbed, with pink and white roses, is edged with clipped box, a style that was also popular in England in the Edwardian period.  The groups of orange flowers are possibly gaillardias which were popular in France and named after maître Galliard de Charentonneau an eighteenth century magistrate who was also an enthusiastic botanist.  In the centre of the bed is a standard rose, while behind this plant a pair of large shrubs seem to echo the two white figures of the women.

Jeune femme a l’ombrelle dans une serre Maurice Bucquet 1907 – 1916

This elegantly dressed young woman carrying a blue umbrella is flanked by rows of brightly coloured flowers arranged on the staging of an impressive glasshouse.  Parasols and umbrellas were often used as props by autochrome photographers.  As well as showing the ability of the process to reproduce colours accurately, the large blocks of colour add strength and structure to the composition.

Jeune femme à ombrelle rouge assise dans un jardin (unknown photographer) 1907 – 1920

Seated on a garden chair, this stylish young woman is shaded both by a parasol and her wide brimmed hat.  The red parasol and matching outsize bow on her hat seem to infuse the whole picture with a pinkish glow.

Couple dans un jardin. Homme assis à une table, femme debout avec une ombrelle (unknown photographer) 1907 – 1930

As well as the smartly dressed couple, this photograph reveals some purpose made garden furniture.  The design, with its metal framework and slatted seats is typically French, as is the greyish-blue paintwork.  The man looks rather impatiently at the camera, as if he is longing for the moment he can break free of his pose.

30 août 1909 Jeune femme assise à sa table dans un jardin (unknown photographer)

This young woman is writing at a desk in the garden, against a backdrop of bamboo and an array of brightly coloured asters in the foreground.  In this period it was not unusual for families to bring furniture from their houses out into the garden for use on sunny days.  We know that this photograph was taken on 30th August 1909, but any information about the sitter, the location or the photographer has been lost.

Femme en robe blanche, dans un jardin, tenant des fleurs dans les mains (unknown photographer 1907 – 1931

Looking somewhat ghostly in her long, white dress, this woman holds two pink roses, apparently gathered from the group of standard rose bushes behind her.  Standard roses have a single strong stem, onto which two or more bush roses are attached, creating a mass of flowers, at eye level.  This very formal shape is sometimes called a tree rose, or rose tree, in the UK.  Today, in Claude Monet’s garden at Giverny, avenues of standard roses are underplanted with pelargoniums in summer, in the popular style of this period.  The  jagged edges of the damage to the top of the photograph almost suggest mountains in the distance.

Couple en noir dans un jardin (unknown photographer) 1910 – 1920

This young couple standing in a sunny garden, are dressed in black, probably for a funeral.

Deux femmes et un homme près d’un massif fleurie Francois Verdier 1920 – 1930

In this compelling photograph, two women and a man are posed close to a flower border containing hollyhocks and roses.  The women’s focus is outside of the frame of the photograph, while the man, lying somewhat incongruously at the women’s feet, gazes straight at the camera.  The rustic looking wooden structure and young trees in the background suggest perhaps a newly planted garden, slightly at odds with the open skies and fields beyond.

Madame Rebillon a Montesson (Seine et Oise) Louis Rebillon 1907 – 1916

Louis Rebillon has created a strong blue theme in his photograph of Madame Rebillion, as she sits reading a journal in the garden.  Her blue satin shirt echoes both the blue irises at the top of the image and a string of cornflowers arranged around her straw hat.  The cornflower, or bluet de France is a symbol of solidarity with veterans, victims of war, widows and orphans, similar to the red poppy worn on Remembrance Day in the UK.  In France, bluet de France badges are sold twice a year, on 8th May and 11th November, with the proceeds used for charitable causes.

Femmes agées, mere et son jeune fils dans un jardin (unknown photographer) 1907 – 1920

Here some older women are sitting in the garden with a young boy,  who is unable to keep still for the time needed for the long exposure required for autochrome photographs.  Perhaps the ghostly figure behind the group is his mother attempting to direct his pose?  In the foreground is another fine example of a garden table, and in the background is a beautiful wall topped with tiled coping.

Mme Fouqué mère dans le jardin (unknown photographer) 1907 – 1931

Here, Mme Fouqué poses outside at an indoor table which has been paired with two purpose made outdoor chairs backed with a heart shaped motif.  The dressing of the table and the unoccupied chair with garden flowers adds to the charm of the scene.

Further reading:

Photography archive at the Bibliothèque Nationale de France here

Bluet de France here

At the Wakefield and North of England Tulip Society Show

Wakefield and North of England Tulip Society Show (1920-30). All photographs courtesy Wakefield Museums and Castles

Duke of Sutherland, Cottage Maid, Montressor, Talisman, Gleam – these evocative names all belong to tulips displayed at the Wakefield and North of England Tulip Society show in the 1920s.  Recorded in this collection of lantern slides, now preserved by the Wakefield Museum and Castles archive, the photographs capture the special atmosphere of the tulip show, held annually in May.  Light streams in through the windows of the show hall illuminating the rows of tulip blooms, carefully arranged in conical vases or beer bottles, as they await the scrutiny of the judges.

Topped with a flat disc to support the single flowers, a close up photograph shows two purpose-made ceramic vases used to display the tulips.   (Some examples of these vessels are held in the Wakefield Museums and Castles collection).  A poster advertises the 93rd show to be held over four days at the Brunswick Hotel and a certificate announces the secretary of the society, Mr Irving Hewitt as the winner of the 1923 competition with a feathered tulip variety, Talisman.

As well as the day of the show, the photographs record members tending their impressive tulip beds.  Mr Needham, president of the society appears justly proud of the array of blooms in his seedling bed where the soil has been raised up a few inches, presumably to give his plants good drainage.  As well as growing named varieties of tulip, members would also grow new plants from seed, partly to save money as bulbs were expensive, but also in the hope of raising a new and spectacular flower.

Founded in 1836 the Wakefield and North of England Tulip Society is the only tulip society still in existence in the UK, cultivating English Florists’ Tulips for competition.  Today a florist is generally understood to be a seller of cut flowers, but in earlier centuries the term was applied to collectors of certain flowering plants, such as the auricula, polyanthus, carnation, pink, ranunculus, hyacinth, and tulip who grew them for exhibition.

According to the WNETS website, the English Florists’ Tulip ‘must conform to strict standards, particularly in having a shape like half a hollow ball, and having a base colour cleanly white or yellow, on top of which the darker colour is overlaid’.  Some of these tulips can be traced back to the early 19th century (or even earlier in the case of Habit de Noce from the 1790s) and include ‘feathered’ and ‘flamed’ varieties where the base colour of the flower is ‘broken’ by a pattern of stripes. This ‘broken’ effect is usually caused by a virus, transmitted by greenfly, which weakens and eventually kills the plant.

While prized as a florists’ flower in the 17th century Anna Pavord, author of The Tulip (1999), a history of the plant, explains how in 18th century England the tulip declined in popularity as gardening tastes changed and because of political tensions with France.

‘The tulip in England was generally considered a French rather than a Dutch flower.  As a result, it suffered in the rejection of all things French that followed the outbreak of the Seven Years War in the middle of the eighteenth century.’ 

Pavord records that interest in tulips was revived by a new kind of florist in the early 19th century, drawn from both the emerging middle class, and working men.  Across the north of England, she notes florists based in Castleton, Leeds and Manchester who started to develop new tulip varieties grown from seed, and a railwayman Tom Storer who ‘lacking any garden, grew his tulips along Derbyshire’s railway embankments.’  Pavord says that amongst the trades practised by the Wakefield Tulip Society members, shoemakers were prevalent.

Wakefield Tulip Society Show, the single bloom section

C W Needham, president of the Wakefield and North of England Tulip Society, standing in his seedling bed.

Tulip bed

The Mayor of Wakefield presenting a trophy at the Wakefield Tulip Society Show

A certificate awarded to the premier bloom at the Wakefield Tulip Society, 1923. The winning variety is Talisman, a feathered variety.

A programme for the Wakefield Tulip Society Show of 1929.

Vases used for displaying tulips at the Wakefield Tulip Society Show.

A display of tulips for the Wakefield Tulip Society Show. The varieties are Duke of Sutherland, Gleam and George Hayward.

Tulip varieties

Tulip varieties

Girl in a tulip field

Mrs H and Winnie

The new breed of florist and the florists’ societies described by Pavord enjoyed widespread popularity in the early 19th century, encouraged by various books and periodical magazines published around this time.  Containing cultivation tips, and illustrated with coloured engravings, they also carried details of plant and bulb suppliers.  The Florist’s Directory by James Maddock published in 1792 includes ‘a fine variegated tulip’ showing the newly fashionable cup-shaped tulip flower.

A similar shaped bloom appears in the chapter describing the tulip in A Concise and Practical Treatise on the Growth and Culture of the Carnation, Pink, Auricula, Polyanthus, Ranunculus, Tulip, Hyacinth, Rose and other Flowers (1822) alongside examples of single tulip petals, showing feather and flame patterns.  At the end of his Treatise the author Thomas Hogg, who was based in Paddington, London includes a model set of regulations for florists’ societies recommending that newly formed groups should adopt them.  Rules that legislate against cheating and disputing judges’ decisions give us an indication of the intensely competitive atmosphere at these flower shows.

A fine, variegated tulip from The Florist’s Directory, James Maddock (1792)

Tulips from A Concise and Practical Treatise on the Growth and Culture of the Carnation, Pink, Auricula, Polyanthus, Ranunculus, Tulip, Hyacinth, Rose and other Flowers 1822 Thomas Hogg (Wellcome Library)

Some rules and regulations from the Chelsea and Islington Societies of Florists from A Concise and Practical Treatise on the Growth and Culture of the Carnation, etc (1822). The author, Thomas Hogg, recommends these rules be used as a model by those forming new societies.

Tulip from The Florist Cultivator, Thomas Willats (1836)

Hayward’s Magnificent tulip from the periodical magazine The Florist (1848)

Florists’ societies have a special place in the cultural history of horticulture in England and today WNETS continues to keep these traditions alive, as well as preserving unusual and unique tulip varieties in cultivation for future generations to enjoy.

This year, despite all the difficulties and restrictions resulting from Covid-19, the Wakefield and North of England Tulip Society’s 186th Annual Show will take place on Sunday 23rd May at Wrenthorpe Village Hall.  Although not open to the public, the results of the show will be published after the judging has taken place on the society’s Facebook page.  Their website is full of information about the history of the society – and photographs of their English Florists’ Tulips showing their spectacular colours.

Links to WNETS and various other sources / inspiration below.  Thanks to Wakefield Museum and Castles for their generosity in providing the images from the 1920s.

Close up of tulip head. This variety is recorded as ‘Gleam’.

Tulip head close up. ‘Mrs Rose Colyer’, a feathered variety.

Slide showing petals and head of a tulip. The tulip head is ‘Annie Mac’ a breeder tulip – the petals show detail of feathered and flamed patterns.

Tulips in a terracotta pot.

Further Reading:

WNETS website here

Images of the colourful English Florists’ Tulips grown by WNETS here

Wakefield Museums and Castles photographic archive here

The Tulip by Anna Pavord (1999) Bloomsbury

A Concise and Practical Treatise on the Growth and Culture of the Carnation, Pink, Auricula, Polyanthus, Ranunculus, Tulip, Hyacinth, Rose and other Flowers (1822) by Thomas Hogg here

The Season of Spring

The Seasons by W S Johnson (1846) from the McGill University Library

Stern winter gone the nymphs and swains
To dance assemble on the plains,
With flowery poles and garlands gay

They observe the rites of May.

As we welcome in the month of May, the season of spring is now well established.   As its title suggests, The Seasons, a picture book for children published in 1846, celebrates each of the four divisions of the year beginning in spring with a calendar of agricultural activities, views of home life and popular festivals.  Each colourful tableau is packed with detailed drawings of people, animals, and objects that would appeal to a child and which could be discussed and explained by an adult reading the book with them.

The first illustration shows a joyful May Day celebration typical of mid-19th century rural England.  In the foreground, a young couple dances to music on a village green, while in the background others join hands around a decorated maypole.  The scene is bordered with flowers, fruits and nesting birds, symbols of fertility, while farming implements like the harrow, sickle and hay rake anticipate a bounteous harvest to come, later in the year.

Forms of May Day celebrations pre-date the Christian calendar and in Celtic and Gaelic cultures Beltane marked the beginning of summer, when cattle were driven from low ground to their summer pastures.  Rituals connected with this event included blessing the new season with ceremonial fires which were believed to have magical properties, and the decoration of homes and livestock with flowers.

In the 17th century it was a popular custom for women to wash their faces in May dew which was believed to improve the complexion.  Samuel Pepys’ diary entry for 11th May 1669 records, ‘My wife again up by four o’clock to go to gather May-dew’, suggesting the supposed efficacy of the dew continued past May Day itself.

May Day wasn’t an official holiday in the 19th century, but the gathering in The Seasons has the atmosphere of a community enjoying a well-deserved break.  At the base of the garland, closest to the young man drinking ale from a jug, we notice a flaming brazier.  Perhaps its purpose is simply to keep the revellers warm in the chilly evening – but in the context of May Day it also feels like an echo of Beltane fire from previous centuries.

Links to The Seasons and other May Day themed information below:

Further reading:

The Seasons by W S Johnson here

May Day Wikipedia entry here

Beltane Wikipedia entry here

The Diary of Samuel Pepys here

Evelyn Dunbar’s English Gardens

Florence Dunbar Tending the Garden, 1939. All images courtesy Liss Llewellyn Gallery (unless otherwise stated)

Lately, the lengthening April days have been cold and overcast, punctuated with occasional welcome bursts of sunshine.  This moment, before the warmth of spring finally arrives, is captured expertly by Evelyn Dunbar in a series of paintings of gardens, mostly belonging to members of her family in Kent and East Sussex.  With trees bare of leaves and the soil freshly turned ready to receive new crops, the chill in the air is perceptible.

Dunbar chose these semi-rural allotment gardens as her subjects, showing a preference for vernacular gardens rather than those attached to grand houses and designed to impress.  These practical spaces were a familiar sight in the 1930s and beyond, and had a special style of their own, running in parallel to  ever-changing garden fashions.  Dominated by large fruit trees, and under-planted with vegetable crops, these productive gardens were necessary as a response to war time food shortages, but also speak of pre-supermarket days when fresh produce was not so easily available.

In ‘Florence Dunbar Tending the Garden’ (1939) an apple tree bursts into flower, the clotted texture of the paint suggesting the abundance of blossom, (and recalling Samuel Palmer’s ‘In a Shoreham Garden’).  Strawberry Cottage in Hurst Green, East Sussex belonged to Dunbar’s aunt and ‘Vegetable Garden at Strawberry Cottage’ (1938) shows rows of tiny seedlings starting to emerge with a row of beans (or peas) starting to climb their simple wooden supports. A more conventional approach might show these gardens in the height of summer, but Dunbar chooses the very start of the season and we share the anticipation of flowers and fruit to come.

A Sussex Garden, 1939

Basement Garden, 1937

Vegetable Garden at Strawberry Cottage, 1938

Early spring, c. 1936

In recent years there’s been a revival of interest in the painter Evelyn Dunbar (1906 – 1960) after a retrospective show at the Pallant House Gallery in 2015, giving a new generation an opportunity to re-discover an artist who had been largely forgotten after her death in 1960 at the age of 53.  This show came about after a relative of the artist took a painting by Dunbar to the BBC’s Antiques Roadshow.  After this, a large quantity of Dunbar’s sketches and drawings came to light, some relating to her best known work as a war artist.

Born in Rochester, Kent Dunbar attended Rochester School of Art (1925 – 27) and Chelsea School of Art (1927 – 29), followed by Royal College of Art where she studied until 1933.  There she formed a close relationship with her tutor, Charles (Cyril) Mahoney (1903 – 1968), who used domestic gardens as a source of inspiration in his painting.  She worked with him on various projects during the 1930s including a mural for the assembly hall at Brockley County School for Boys in south east London and Gardeners’ Choice, an illustrated book published by Routledge.  In 1938 Dunbar produced illustrations for A Gardener’s Diary, an appointments book for Country Life.

Galley proof of preliminary prospectus for A Gardener’s Diary 1938

Preparatory drawing for A Gardener’s Diary, 1938

Study for April, A Gardener’s Diary 1938

April, 1937

In 1940 Evelyn Dunbar was appointed to the War Artists’ Advisory Committee – the only woman to be given a full time salaried role as a war artist.  Her work during this period shows the contribution of the Women’s Land Army and the Women’s Voluntary Service to the war effort.  From gathering in harvests of peas, potatoes and corn, to sewing military camouflage, Dunbar recorded the detail of these vital activities.  She met Roger Folley, an agricultural economist, in 1940 and they were married in 1942. Folley’s work took him all over the country in the war years, and this enabled Dunbar to feature a wide range of locations in her paintings, as she followed him to each posting.  They eventually returned to Kent, living near Wye, in 1950.

Dunbar’s paintings from this period are accomplished, and show great affinity with the English people and countryside.  But perhaps their necessary, but narrow, focus on England in war-time made it inevitable that they would be overtaken by new styles, as the public, seeking a brighter future in the 1950s, left the hardships of the 1940s behind them.

Study for vegetable cultivation at Sparsholt Farm Institute, 1940

Baling Hay 1940 Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales, Cardiff

Threshing, Kent 1942/42 Government Art Collection

Dunbar’s illustration style is very different from that of her paintings, and here the gardens she depicts while still vernacular, are more formal.  Two front gardens show neatly edged flower beds, picket fences and topiary – all classic features of the cottage garden.  The slightly child-like charm of this work is produced by Dunbar’s use of a very even weight of line – as well as the architectural details of the houses and the plants in their gardens.  Lots traditional country dwellings in the 19th century had a conifer tree planted close to the house and Dunbar shows these, along with tulips in the borders.

Dunbar also decorated her personal letters with garden motifs and designs.  In a thank you letter to Edward and Charlotte Bawden she includes a garden plan and planting suggestions for them – rather mischievously including  a dandelion and some snails in one corner.  A letter to Charles Mahoney shows a wonderful topiary peacock, a shape typical of gardens in Kent and Sussex which are still cultivated today.

Pussy Cat

Vignette of stylised house and garden for Gardeners’ Choice, 1937

Our first house, 1945

Letter to Edward and Charlotte Bawden, 1936

Letter to Charles Mahoney 1936

From The Book of Topiary (1904) Charles Henry Curtis and William Gibson (Biodiversity Heritage Library)

Balmoral Cottage, Benenden, Kent

Stylised yew peacock at Great Dixter

Contained in a series of vignettes drawn on a sheet of squared paper is a design with a jug of flowers against a background of an open book, and in the winter of 1945 – 46 Dunbar developed this idea into the painting, ‘Pansies and Violas’.  Her choice of these modest items for this painting encapsulates her talent for recording the domestic world in a way that celebrates its beauty; allowing people, their gardens and everyday activities and objects to transcend their ordinariness.

A set of 20 vignettes

Pansies and Violas, winter 1945-46

With special thanks to the Liss Llewellyn Gallery and Evelyn Dunbar’s biographer Christopher Campbell-Howes.

Further reading:

Evelyn Dunbar’s work at the Liss Llewellyn Gallery here

Evelyn Dunbar: A Life in Painting – a biography by her nephew Christopher Campbell-Howes here

Paintings in UK museum collections via Art UK here

Evelyn Dunbar Wikipedia entry here

Pallant House Gallery: Andrew Lambirth’s essay about Dunbar here

Martin Gerlach’s Festoons

Festoon made from vegetables and beets, from Festons und Decorative Gruppen aus Pflanzen und Theiren, or, Festoons and decorative groups of Plants and Animals, published in Vienna in 1893 by Martin Gerlach. Images courtesy of the Museum für Kunst und Gerwerbe, Hamburg

These festoons with their sumptuous cascades of ripe fruits and fragrant roses suspended from a striped silk ribbon resemble at first glance sections of stone ornament, or plaster moulding.  But closer inspection reveals the roses to be cabbages, the delicious looking fruits are in fact beetroots and onions, the elaborate silk bow is a curtain cord, and a wooden finial has been pressed into service as a classical-looking prop, hiding the ends of plant stems at the top of the arrangement.

All the festoons, swags, garlands and other embellishments in Festons und Decorative Gruppen aus Pflanzen und Theiren, or, Festoons and decorative groups of Plants and Animals, are constructed using similarly inventive combinations of flowers, vegetables, taxidermy and domestic objects.  Published in Vienna in 1893 by Martin Gerlach, this book of elaborate photographic collages was intended both as reference and inspiration for artists working across a range of crafts using pattern, from wood carving, plaster work, textiles, illustration and wallpaper design.

Judging by the seasonality of the plant materials Gerlach used, the photographs were taken over the course of many months.  Early spring blossoms of apple and cherry with nesting birds give way to the lilac, roses and hollyhocks of summer, while autumn provides a profusion of gourds, sweetcorn, grapes, apples and pumpkins.  Winter is represented by arrangements of pine cones and stuffed squirrels placed amongst evergreen conifer branches.

Some of the most effective designs use only leaves – the winding stems of creeping cinquefoil form a delicate narrow border, while larger sprigs of oak leaves and acorns could be imagined as infill sections for fabric or wallpaper.  Peony flowers and leaves carefully spaced over a diamond grid background would have been helpful for an artist designing a repeat pattern.

Garlands of citrus fruits are shown in half-sections, the smaller fruits at the edges, gradually increasing in size towards the middle.  Some of the most elaborate festoons include tools and musical instruments – in one example a gardener’s spade intersects with a watering can, while a straw basket (or maybe an upturned straw hat?) overflows with produce, celebrating the bounty of harvest.

From the middle of the 19th century photographers such as Adolphe Braun (1812 – 1877) and Charles Aubry (1811 – 1877) saw a commercial opportunity to produce still life studies of flowers as reference material for artists.  Although photographs could not entirely replace living specimens, it must have been an immense advantage to be able to see forms of flowers, their leaves and the growing patterns of stems and branches throughout the year, especially in winter, when it was not possible to observe these from life.  Gerlach produced a number of reference books in this genre, including plant forms, trees, examples of wrought iron and other architectural details.

Martin Gerlach (1846 – 1918) was born in Hanau, Germany and trained as an engraver.  He established a jewellery business in the 1860s but this enterprise was unsuccessful.  Having become interested in photography, Gerlach started a publishing house in the 1870s in Berlin which produced his reference books and a crafts magazine, Die Perle.  He re-located his company to Vienna in 1872 and continued his work there, eventually publishing more than forty books about design and a series of books for children including songs, poems and fairytales.

By the end of the 19th century decorative motifs like those celebrated in Festons und Decorative Gruppen, and popular in Europe since Roman times, were soon to be swept away by new ideas and fashions associated with Modernism.  Today Gerlach’s plant and vegetable festoons and garlands have almost a contemporary feel to them – it’s not hard to imagine a photographer inspired, perhaps, by carvings or plaster work in a historic house, deciding to re-create them with real materials as a post-modern photographic project.  More than one hundred years after publication, this collection of images continues both to inspire and document the complex role of photography in design.

Links to source materials below:

Festoons and decorative groups of plants and animals by Martin Gerlach, Vienna. Gerlach & Schenk

Festoons and still lifes made from sunflowers, mallow, lilies, vegetables, paradise apples, melons, radishes, peppers, crabs, goblets, grapes, bottles, hay, etc

Festoon made of chestnuts, fruits, medallion and bird

Frieze and festoons made from pumpkins, medlar leaves, corn, etc

Frieze, festoons and vignette made of hazelnut, oak, grapes, pumpkins, paradise apple, Kukuk, etc

Group of apple blossoms with birds

Group of cherry plum and almond blossoms with a bird

Group of apple blossoms with medallion

Group of apple blossoms with butterflies

Infill and festoon of apple blossoms with fruits, orange branch with fruits and kingfisher

Festoons made from thorn blossom, lilac, garlic and pomegranate

Infill and festoon made from laurel, lemon and orange with butterflies

Groups of plums and Reine-Claude branches

Festoon groups made of quince, sweet chestnut, tulip tree fruit, lemons, pumpkin, pomegranate

Festoons made from vegetables, beets, cereals and garden tools

Threads made of grapes, apple of paradise and hops

Festoons made of musical instruments, palms, pomegranates, lemons, grapes, pumpkins, bay leaves, quinces, corn, coconuts, etc

Decorative stripes and threads made of roses with mask, shell and medallion

Hanging groups of pumpkins and cucumbers

Vignettes made of roses, sign, bottle, palette, palm and mallow

Borders and still lifes made of house leek, carrion flowers, orchids, water lilies, grapes, crabs, lobsters, fish, mussels, reeds, vessels, musical instruments, books, sheet music, laurel etc

Hanging groups and moldings made of thorn, peonies (seed pods), blackberries, marshmallow, mountain ash and apples

Festoon, vignette and group of coconuts, quinces, corn, animal skulls and conifers with birds

Frieze, group and decorative strip of laurel, animal skulls and butterflies

Group of hazelnut branches with squirrels

Festoons and conifer infill with fox heads and squirrels

Trims and infill made of strawberry, cypress and oak (note: I think the plant at the top of the photograph is actually cinquefoil which has strawberry-like fruits)

Groups of peonies

Friezes made from firethorn fruit, silver spruce, aralia, silver bush and trout

Group of acanthus

Further reading:

Festons und Decorative Gruppen aus Pflanzen und Theiren – pages from the book digitized by the MK&G here

Martin Gerlach on Wikipedia here

Gerlach’s photographs are collotypes – Wikipedia definition here

The Photographer in the Garden (EastmanMuseum/Aperture) here

Summer in a French Garden

Plant de géranium rouge                     Photographs by Eugène Blondelet courtesy Bibliothèque Nationale de France

Perhaps it’s in February, at the very end of the winter, that we look forward to the summer months with the most intensity?  These autochrome photographs, taken by Eugène Blondelet sometime between 1907 and 1920, provide a welcome reminder of warmer days ahead and capture perfectly the pleasures of long, sunny days outside in a French family garden.

The autochrome colour photography process was created by the brothers Auguste and Louis Lumière in the early 1900s and they launched Autochrome Lumière in 1907, aimed at the amateur photographer.  Their process involved the use of prepared glass plates with tiny grains of dyed potato starch pressed onto one side and photosensitive silver halide emulsion on the other.  Autochrome was too expensive to make colour photography accessible to everyone, but proved popular with photographers who could afford it (like Blondelet), who frequently used the new technology to record their families and domestic surroundings, including gardens.

Autochrome Lumière required long exposures, so a tripod was needed to keep the heavy camera stable and people had to remain still while a photograph was being taken to avoid motion blur.  Clearly, the young boys in fancy dress (Garçonnets déguisés dans un jardin)  photographed by Blondelet were unable to keep their poses quite long enough for the exposure time required – perhaps the double excitement of dressing up and having their photograph taken made this impossible – but the blurring caused by their movement somehow underlines their youthful energy and adds to the charm of the image.

Autochrome was best suited to objects with a fixed position and plants were ideal subjects for the photographer, being both static and colourful.  Images of bright floral arrangements were used by the Lumière Brothers as a means of marketing their process, as they were so effective in demonstrating its ability to replicate colour accurately.  Blondelet’s still life photographs of garden flowers reveal an abundance of roses, phlox, dahlias, geums, asters, coreopsis, gladiolus, and crocosmia – some of the popular flowers of the period.

The series of photographs entitled Garçonnets déguisés dans un jardin give us a glimpse into how this example of a domestic garden was planted.  The borders behind the children are edged quite formally with three rows of low clipped box with a mass planting of orange French marigolds behind these, providing a continuous block of colour.  This effect would be further amplified later in the season by a row of nasturtiums which we can see beginning to climb up the balustrade.

Another (highly staged) image Garçonnets posant dans un jardin shows two boys in the role of gardeners, one with a small rake and the other pulling a wooden cart containing flowers supposedly gathered from the abundant and colourful border behind them.  Close up shots reveal a hydrangea, slightly wilted in the heat of the sun, some dahlias and a brilliant red pelargonium.

Blondelet’s interest in gardens seems to have extended beyond his own.  Massif de bégonias rouges et plant de bananier shows detail of a summer bedding display which looks typical of those planted in a public park.  Jardin d’une propriété en bordure d’un cours d’eau shows the traditional wooden gates, picket fencing and neat planting of a well cared for cottage garden, with steps down to a slow moving expanse of water.

What is the appeal of autochrome photographs today?  While their colour has intensity there’s also a slightly diffuse quality to the images, which must owe something to the materials used in the process, especially the granular nature of the potato starch.  While unmistakably grounded in the real world, at the same time these images seem to possess a sense of detachment from reality; a dream-like quality. Some of the imperfections and inevitable deterioration of the fragile plates over time contribute to this effect – the colour distortion in Blondelet’s Bouquet des roses from green at the top of the frame to red at the bottom is one such example.  But if the world depicted by black and white images can sometimes seem remote, these autochrome photographs connect us with the past with a striking immediacy.

Thanks to the Bibliothèque Nationale de France for making these beautiful images available online.

Garçonnets déguisés dans un jardin

Garçonnets déguisés dans un jardin

Garçonnets déguisés dans un jardin

Garçonnets posant dans un jardin

Fleurs de diverses couleurs dans une cruche

Bouquet de roses

Bouquet de fleurs variées blanches

Bouquet composé de fleurs et de brins d’herbe

Fleurs fanées dans un vase

Massif de dahlias roses

Massif ensoleille d’hortensia bleu

Massif de bégonias rouges et plant de bananier

Jardin d’une propriété en bordure d’un cours d’eau

Plant de géranium rouge

Feuillage en contrejour

Autoportrait – Eugène Blondelet

Further reading:

Comprehensive explanation of Autochrome Lumière here

The Photographer in the Garden (2018) Jamie M Allen / Sarah Anne McNear
published by the George Eastman Museum / Aperture  – link here

Bibliothèque Nationale de France – online collections here

The story of Auguste and Louis Lumière here

Pruning Pears with William Forsyth

William Forsyth (1737 – 1804) stipple engraving by Samuel Freeman (Wellcome Institute Collection)

When William Forsyth published his Treatise on the culture and management of fruit trees in 1802 he had been gardener to King George III for eighteen years, during which time he was credited with the transformation of the royal orchards at Kensington Palace.  His experimental pruning techniques rejuvenated the Palace’s old fruit trees making them productive once more.  Forsyth was also celebrated for his invention of a dressing for damaged trees, which was believed to assist in restoring them to good health.

Before his royal appointment, William Forsyth already had a prestigious career in horticulture.  Born in Aberdeenshire, Forsyth re-located to London to train at the Chelsea Physic Garden under another Scottish gardener, Philip Miller (1691 – 1777), eventually becoming head gardener there in 1771.  He took up the position of superintendent of the royal gardens at Kensington Palace and St James’s Palace in 1784.  The now familiar garden shrub forsythia was named for him and he is an ancestor of the late entertainer, Bruce Forsyth.

William Forsyth’s employment brought him to the attention of the English establishment, who saw his work in the royal gardens.  They were impressed by his success with the King’s fruit trees, and persuaded by the efficacy of his ‘composition’ or remedy for damaged trees.  Against the background of the Napoleonic Wars when access to good timber was essential, the composition was discussed in both houses of Parliament and the recipe published in the national interest.  It was printed in local newspapers across the country to encourage landowners across England to adopt it for the health of their forest trees.

This dressing, or ‘composition’ as Forsyth called it, was made out of cow dung, lime plaster (‘that from the ceilings of rooms is preferable’), wood ashes and sand.  It was applied to tree wounds after careful preparation of the surface, first removing any dead or diseased wood.  Gradually, the damaged area was restored and covered over by new bark.

In his book, Forsyth explains how his work with trees started.  As the new gardener to the royal family in 1784, Forsyth was expected to produce abundant and tasty fruits for the royal tables, but when he arrived at Kensington Palace he was faced with a dilemma.

The gardens contained dozens of fruit trees, some large orchard trees, dwarf standard trees, and others wall trained, but the trees were old and had stopped bearing well.  He observes the pear trees are ‘in a very cankery and unfruitful state’, but after changing the soil around the trees and pruning them, 18 months later he notices no improvement.  Forsyth says,

‘I began to consider what was best to be done with so many old pear-trees that were worn out.  The fruit that they produced I could not send to his Majesty’s table with any credit to myself, it being small, hard and kernelly.’

But rather than grub up the old trees and wait for new stock to start bearing – Forsyth estimates this would have taken ‘between twelve and fourteen years’ – he decides to ‘try an experiment, with a view of recovering the old ones.’

In 1786 Forsyth began a process of ‘heading down’ seven old trees, probably best explained by the illustrations below.  Some large branches were removed as close to a bud as possible, allowing the tree to produce new, vigorous shoots.  In the case of wall trained pear trees, the new growth was carefully tied in.

St Germain Pear Tree
This plate represents an old decayed Pear-tree, with four stems, which was headed down, all but the branch C, and the young wood trained in the common way, or fan-fashioned.

Branches marked A show young wood, producing the fine large fruit B.

C. An old branch pruned in the common way, having large spurs standing out a foot or eighteen inches, and producing the diminutive, kernelly and ill-favoured fruit D, not fit to be eaten.

White Beurre Pear Tree
Fig. 1. An old decayed Beurre pear-tree, headed down at f, and restored from one inch and a half of live bark.

Fig. 2. An old branch of the same tree before it was headed down, trained and pruned in the old way, with spurs standing out a foot, or a foot and a half from the wall; and the rough bark, infested with a destructive insect

The diagram of an old White Beurre pear tree shows detail of an old branch which has been removed – the bark was infested with insects, so the pruning has the effect of eliminating persistent pests as well as promoting new growth.

As well as the headed down trees, Forsyth kept seven trees as a control group and pruned these in the regular way.  Forsyth observes that in the third year after ‘heading down’, the trees were producing more fruit that they did previously, and that it is larger and of better quality.  After four years the trees are producing ‘upwards of five times the quantity of fruit that the others did’.  Here’s an excerpt showing the improved yield and also the systematic nature of Forsyth’s records.

Trees treated according to the common method of pruning:

‘A Crasane produced one hundred pears, and the tree spread fourteen yards.
Another Crasane produced sixteen pears, and the tree spread ten yards.’

Trees headed down and pruned according to my method:

‘A Crasane bore five hundred and twenty pears.
A Brown Beurre bore five hundred and three pears.
Another Brown Beurre bore five hundred and fifty pears.’

Forsyth’s crops were even greater using his pruning method on smaller, standard trees; so much so, he ‘is obliged to prop the branches, to prevent their being broken down by the weight of it.’

In other chapters, Forsyth records similar successes with apples, plums, apricots, peaches and grape vines, and towards the end of the book publishes a series of endorsements from prominent people who have tried his pruning methods and his composition in their own gardens.

What’s inspiring today about Forsyth’s treatise is his willingness to use his vast horticultural experience pragmatically – and creatively – to address a problem.  He teaches us that from time to time it’s worthwhile to step back from the ‘correct way’ of doing things and experiment with a different approach to address the challenges that gardening presents us with.

Links below to Forsyth’s Treatise.  I’ve included a plate of the pruning tools used by Forsyth and an explanation of these from the text.

Standard Pear Tree
An old Bergamot Pear, headed down at the cicatrix a, taken from the wall and planted out as a dwarf standard.
b. A wound, covered with the composition, where a large upright shoot was cut off, to give the leading shoot freedom to grow straight.

Figs 2 and 3 show the insect (probably the Codling moth) so destructive to fruit trees.

Tools used by Forsyth both for pruning and for preparing wood to receive his healing composition

Forsyth’s directions for making his Composition from 1791

Gardener with pear tree, Ote Hall, Sussex. Photographed by Charles Jones circa 1901 – 20 (V&A Collections)

The above photograph gives a sense of the abundance of a wall trained pear, when pruned skillfully.

Further reading:

William Forsyth’s Treatise on the culture and management of fruit trees

William Forsyth (horticulturalist) Wikipedia

At the W. Atlee Burpee Seed Company

New for 1942 – Burpee’s yellow cosmos front cover of the W. Atlee Burpee Co. Seed Growers Catalogue (via archive.org)

In mid-January, with its cold, short days and spring still some distance over the horizon, many of us delight in browsing through the new season’s seed catalogues. Whether we consult a paper catalogue, or visit a website, both immerse us in a colourful world of new growing possibilities and provide a welcome reminder of summer days to come.

But as we place our orders, who are the people who will receive and process them, fill the seed packets, package them up and post them to us?  In this remarkable photographic project from 1943, Arthur S. Siegel takes us into the heart of operations at seed dealers W. Atlee Burpee in Philadelphia to meet the staff keeping the supply of vegetable and flower seeds flowing to its customers during World War II.

The project was commissioned by the Office of War Information as part of a country-wide record of the role played by US companies in the war effort.  At once we notice the large number of women employed at W. Atlee Burpee, working across the roles, in administration, testing seed samples for viability, and operating the machines that sorted seeds into their packets.  The men are generally above conscription age – although there is one young man working in the vast storage and packing department.  The caption of a photograph showing a young woman sweeping the floor explains that she is doing the man’s job of a janitor due to the war.

The W. Atlee Burpee Company was established in 1876 and by the time David Burpee took over the business from his father in 1915, it was estimated to be the largest seed company in the world, employing 300 people and distributing over a million of its catalogues each year.  Whereas Atlee was focused primarily on vegetables, David liked flowers and produced dozens of new varieties of marigolds, nasturtiums and petunias.  David Burpee also ran the Victory Gardens campaign aimed at city dwellers and teaching them how to grow their own food during the produce shortages caused by World War II.

As a large company W. Atlee Burpee supplied farms and market gardens in the United States, as well as individuals.  Siegel’s photographs show rows of seed sacks ready for dispatch to agricultural businesses across the United States, while others are labelled for shipping around the world, to England, Ireland and South Africa.  The photograph of the company’s enormous Philadelphia building underlines of the scale of the enterprise.

The atmosphere at the warehouse seems busy and focused; the piles of order forms on workers’ desks and heaps of packages waiting for posting indicating the important role of growing food during wartime.  But the wartime catalogues continue to feature plenty of flowers alongside the vegetables, and these are given pride of place on the occasional colour pages of these mostly black and white publications.

Planning the garden and choosing some favourite flowers is the gardener’s annual response to this dormant season and the new year – but perhaps now, as in the 1940s, it’s also a response to uncertain times – sowing some seeds as an act of hope and optimism.

Exterior of the W. Atlee Burpee seed plant, Philadelphia 1943 photographed by Arthur S. Siegel (Library of Congress)

Sealing envelopes containing seed

Order assembler standing next to racks containing seed packages

Finding seed package in seed rack

Feeding envelopes to seed counting machines

The cashier totaling individual orders

Operator of a seed counting machine

Interior of the bulk seed warehouse

Bags of seed to be sent to England

Wrapper with packages of seed ready for the mail

Orders in trays before they are packed for shipment

Measuring bulk seed order

Seed packages arranged in seed rack

Mailing department – the envelopes are to be sealed and stamped

Typing address labels on a flat bed typewriter

Punching code information on mailing stencils

Testing seeds for germinating qualities

Storage of bulk seeds

Mailing department – the envelopes are to be sealed and stamped

Checking seed order against catalog

Weighing the outgoing mail

Germinating seeds after they have been removed from the oven

Accountant assembling the day’s returns

Checking an order against the catalog

Bulb storage racks

Women with a typical display rack of Burpee seeds

Seed filling machine

Due to the War the janitor is a girl

Outdoor sign over doorway entrance

Burpee’s Wildfire New Single Marigolds 1941

W. Atlee Burpee Co. Seed Growers, Philadelphia
Order form from the 1941 Catalogue

W. Atlee Burpee Co. Seed Growers, Philadelphia
1941 Catalogue

Burpee’s New and Better Vegetables 1942

Burpee’s new Calendulas – the X-Ray Twins ‘Glowing Gold’ and ‘Orange Fluffy’ 1942

Back cover of the catalogue 1942

Further reading:

Library of Congress: Arthur S. Siegel’s photographs of the W. Atlee Burpee Company

W. Atlee Burpee Company Seed Catalogue 1941

W. Atlee Burpee Company Seed Catalogue 1942

The Smithsonian Libraries: Biographies of American Seedsmen and Nurserymen