At the Caernarfonshire Women’s Institute Flower Arranging Show

Images of women arranging flowers at the Caernarvonshire Federation of Women’s Institutes flower arranging competition 8th October 1959 Photographer: Geoff Charles All images © People’s Collection Wales

Whilst browsing The People’s Collection’s online archive recently, I came across the remarkable photographs of Geoff Charles.  Produced during Charles’s long career as a journalist in Wales, his images record the communities, cultural life and working lives of Welsh people across the country from the mid-1930s to the 1970s.

The agricultural show was a regular subject for Charles, as were smaller local produce and flower shows.  One of these was the Caernarfonshire Women’s Institute Flower Arranging Show which Charles photographed in October 1959 and 1960. In three particularly striking portraits the intense concentration of the competitors is palpable, as they each make finishing touches to their arrangements.

Most of the arrangements produced for the show are quite formal and stiff, unlike the more naturalistic styles fashionable today.  The seasonal flowers in the competitors’ vases looks as though they’ve come from their own gardens, with dahlias and chrysanthemums as popular choices.  One woman has used trailing hops in her design, to balance the height of the taller blooms, and perhaps showing the influence of the florist Constance Spry, who liked to use unusual plants in her work.  Charles records the long lengths of white paper covering the display tables, employed to form a neutral backdrop to each vase of flowers.

Visitors to the show are mature women, dressed in their best clothes and hats, as if for a church service.  A great observer of people, Charles captures expressions of surprise, and momentary glances between the women that reveal subtleties of their personalities, as well as the competitive spirit at the occasion.

Geoff Charles (1909 – 2002) was born in Brymbo near Wrexham in Wales, and trained as a journalist in London in the 1920s.  Charles bought his first camera whilst working for the Wrexham Star, and by the mid-1930s became manager of photographic section at Woodall’s Newspapers.  Influenced by Picture Post’s style of photo-journalism, he contributed stories to various newspaper titles in Wales for decades, including the Welsh language paper Y Cymro (The Welsh, or The Welshman).  His archive of 120,000 photographs is preserved at the National Library of Wales.

Charles documented people with the same steady gaze, whether they were attending local gatherings or events of national importance.  At a state occasion, for example, he would be more likely to photograph a guest like Prince Charles waiting for it to begin than to create a conventional royal portrait.

Charles seems to have attached great value to the roles played by women, recording their working lives in factories and laundries, as well as craft based industries like weaving and ceramics across Wales.  Charles was also a regular visitor to events organised by the Women’s Institute in Wales, and with his journalist’s eye for a story, was expert at capturing the character of their Christmas parties, cookery demonstrations and drama festivals.

Today Charles’s work has an elegiac quality, as so much of what he recorded has disappeared.  People, buildings, and whole industries have gone, and with them, the settled way of life for dozens of communities.  Charles understood the importance of preserving images from these times for future generations to appreciate, so it seems entirely fitting that over 1,500 of his extraordinary images are now made available to all online by The People’s Collection, a website which documents the cultural heritage of Wales.

Links below to Charles’s work – including more scenes from Women’s Institute gatherings.

Images of women arranging flowers at the Caernarvonshire Federation of Women’s Institutes flower arranging competition 8th October 1959

Images of women arranging flowers at the Caernarvonshire Federation of Women’s Institutes flower arranging competition 8th October 1959

Caernarfonshire Women’s Institute flower arranging competition 13th October 1960

Caernarfonshire Women’s Institute flower arranging competition 13th October 1960

Caernarfonshire Women’s Institute flower arranging competition 13th October 1960

Caernarfonshire Women’s Institute flower arranging competition 13th October 1960

Caernarfonshire Women’s Institute flower arranging competition 13th October 1960

Caernarfonshire Women’s Institute flower arranging competition 13th October 1960

Caernarfonshire Women’s Institute flower arranging competition 13th October 1960

Caernarfonshire Women’s Institute flower arranging competition 13th October 1960

Caernarfonshire Women’s Institute flower arranging competition 13th October 1960

Selection of Geoff Charles’s photographs at the People’s Collection Wales here

Geoff Charles Biography – People’s Collection Wales here

Geoff Charles Wikipedia here

Picture Post (1938 – 1957) here

Reflections on The Cloister Garden at the Museum of the Order of St John

Swift sculpture by Mark Coreth placed in the 200 year old olive tree in the Cloister Garden, at the Museum of the Order of St John

This month I’m bidding farewell to the Cloister Garden at the Museum of the Order of St John in Clerkenwell which I’ve had responsibility for maintaining since 2019.  So, one day back in June, I visited the garden with my camera to reflect on the space and the important role it plays in this part of London, where accessible green space can be hard to find.

Entered through an archway on the east side of St John’s Square, the garden is sheltered by walls on all sides, including that of St John’s Priory Church.  These walls, together with two enormous plane trees in the churchyard, seem to absorb much of the thundering traffic noise from nearby Clerkenwell Road and establish the garden’s atmosphere of tranquility.

The Priory in Clerkenwell was set up in the 1140s as the English base for the Order of St John.  This medieval military Order, also known as the Knights Hospitaller, had its headquarters in Jerusalem, where members provided care for the sick and wounded.  Today the Order of St John is best known for the health organisations it continues to run, including the St John Ambulance.

The garden is a paved space and with its formal, symmetrical layout is somewhat reminiscent of a paradise garden, with a series of pathways and narrow beds creating four main areas surrounded by fragrant plants.  Developed centuries ago in Iran, this style of Islamic ‘fourfold’ garden, or chaharbagh, became popular in Asia and the Mediterranean.

Western travellers, such as the Knights Hospitaller would have encountered gardens in this style, and over time some elements found their way into European garden design.  Water was an essential feature of paradise gardens, and at one time there was a pool at the centre of the Cloister Garden, now replaced with a mature olive tree forming a dramatic central focus.  Visitors can still experience the sound of running water, however, from a small fountain located on the north wall of the garden.

Designed by Alison Wear in 2011, the planting uses medicinal herbs like rosemary, lavender, and wormwood, alluding to the medical traditions of the Order of St John, which cultivated these plants for their healing properties.  As well as these, Wear has included modern decorative perennial plants like Geranium ‘Rozanne’, Geranium ‘Brookside’, oriental poppies and crocosmia for their succession of attractive flowers.  The space also serves as a memorial garden for St John’s Ambulance members associated with the site, whose names are remembered on the walls of the cloister on the east side of the garden and by roses planted  in the adjacent raised beds.

Much of the planting is quite low, so that in places visitors can step over the beds conveniently, as well as using the pathways.  This aspect of Wear’s design encourages people to slow down, adding to the sense of calm in the space, and seating is provided for those who wish to stay a while.  Once seated in the garden, the low planting immediately feels taller, and more immersive, while the formal lines appear looser, especially when looking diagonally across the space.

Our increasingly hot summers in London have been harsh on some of the capital’s gardens, but the Cloister Garden, having a high proportion of plants that come from the Mediterranean region, tolerates the heat well.  Indeed, herbs like oregano, hyssop, myrtle and sage, as well as the twin bay trees seem to relish these conditions.  The 200 year olive tree, brought here from Jerusalem some years ago, also thrives.  While not designed specifically as a wildlife garden, flowers like lavender attract a range of bees and other insects, and birds are regular visitors, especially when the garden is empty of people.

During my maintenance visits, it’s been abundantly clear how much the garden is appreciated by visitors; whether they are local residents, tourists or those who work locally and come to enjoy the outdoor space at lunchtime.  Some people have told me that being in the space, even briefly, helps improve their sense of wellbeing.  Some like to spend ten minutes of quiet before a long day at the office, while others bring the office to the garden and have their work meetings here.  It’s interesting to see how visitors move the lightweight café tables and chairs around to suit the size of their group, or their preference for sun or shade.

One frequent visitor would still come in the early morning to read his book, even in the pouring rain, when he would take shelter underneath a huge golf umbrella.  Rachel Job from the Museum told me about a visitor from Puglia who was visibly moved by the health of the garden’s olive tree, as the olive groves in his part of Italy had been ravaged in recent years by Xyella, a bacterial infection.  Another local woman would regularly ask after the resident robin that liked to search for food scraps in the garden.

I hope next time you find yourself in Clerkenwell you’ll take a few minutes to visit the Cloister Garden for a moment’s respite from the clamour of London.  The Museum of the Order of St John is located at St John’s Gate and hosts exhibitions relating to the long and rich history of the Order.  The garden is generally open – closing occasionally for events and workshops – details of opening hours here and more links below:

The olive sits like a tree of life, in its central position in the garden

Peacock butterfly sunning itself on the wall of St John’s Priory church

Hypericum x hidcoteense ‘Hidcote’ often called St John’s wort

Rosa gallica ‘Officinalis’ or the Apothecary’s rose.

Rosa gallica ‘Officinalis’ or the Apothecary’s rose.

Rosa ‘The Generous Gardener’

Rosa ‘St John’ – grown here as a short climber this floribunda rose flowers continuously from May to December.

Flowers of Acanthus mollis and self seeded Digitalis purpurea form pleasing vertical accents. The pink rose is Rosa ‘Gertrude Jekyll’

Further reading:

The history of the Order of St John – Museum website here

The Order of St John Wikipedia page here

Penelope Hobhouse’s Gardening Through the Ages Simon & Schuster (1992)

Article by Andrew Kershman (showing how much the olive tree has grown since 2016) here

RHS on Xyella fastidiosa here

Cecil Beaton at Waterperry House

‘Pruning pear cordons in the walled garden. Angled method of training ensures maximum amount of sunlight on each fruit tree.’ Women’s Horticultural College at Waterperry House in Oxfordshire, 1943  All photographs by Cecil Beaton from the Ministry of Information Second World War Official Collection at the Imperial War Museum, London. Copyright: © IWM DB252.

Beneath a bright sky, scattered with light cloud, groups of young women dressed in a practical uniform of dungarees and short sleeved shirts are hard at work in the summer sunshine.  Captured by photographer Cecil Beaton, these scenes of wartime England in the early 1940s show horticultural students from the Women’s Horticultural College, based at Waterperry House in rural Oxfordshire, cultivating vital food crops for the war effort.

Engaged in an array of tasks, women are shown driving tractors, and operating other horticultural machinery such as the Plant Junior Hoe, as well as planting, pruning and harvesting by hand.  The gardens are recorded at a busy moment in the growing season, probably in June or July, with crops of lettuce and ripe strawberries ready for market, alongside onions and tomato plants still growing on.  New seed drills are in the process of being marked out with twine in the freshly turned soil, in preparation for successional sowings.

Better known for his stylish studio portraits of celebrities and royalty, Cecil Beaton produced these images of Waterperry for the Ministry of Information between 1940 and 1944.  He is thought to have made two visits to the site, one of which was in the summer of 1943.

In his role as war photographer, Cecil Beaton (1904 – 1980) produced over 7,000 images recording the war in the Middle East and East Asia, as well as the effects of the blitz in the UK and the domestic war effort.  These photographs were the subject of three books published during the war years and the images were transferred to the Imperial War Museum’s collection in 1948.  As well as people, Beaton had a lasting interest in flowers and gardens, including his own at Reddish House in Wiltshire, which featured regularly in his work.

Beaton depicts the young Waterperry horticulturalists bent double thinning rows of vegetables, leaning across cold frames to tend courgette plants inside, or heaving crates of produce into the back of a van, bound for the college shop in Oxford market.  As Beaton records the physical demands of gardening, his interest in performance and drama is also apparent, his choice of poses giving the women an emblematic appearance, like heroic figures in a patriotic wartime poster.

The captions accompanying Beaton’s photographs are written in the same style as a wartime news reel commentary, with the brisk delivery and clipped pronunciation typical of the era.  If some of the assumptions about women’s roles and capabilities seem dated today, so do the horticultural methods – it’s hard to imagine crop spraying now without any face protection for the gardeners.  There is hardly any plastic in evidence, however, with tomatoes tied to their supports with raffia and vegetable crates made out of wood.

The Women’s Horticultural College was founded by Beatrix Havergal (1901 – 1980) in 1927 at Pusey House, Oxfordshire.  The college moved to Waterperry in 1932, acquiring the site from Magdelen College, Oxford in 1948.  Havergal trained in horticulture at the Thatcham Fruit and Flower Farm near Newbury before joining Downe House boarding school as head gardener in the early 1920s.  It was here that she met her life-long partner Avice Sanders, the school’s housekeeper.   Havergal’s two year courses for women covered both theory and practice in horticulture and secured a high reputation for standards.  In failing health in her later years, Havergal eventually sold the site to the School of Philosophy and Economic Science in 1971, who remain the owners.

The formidable looking Beatrix Havergal appears in two of Beaton’s photographs; a portrait shows her in a glasshouse thinning bunches of grapes with a scissors and in another she is with students pruning pear cordons in the walled garden.  Head of Fruit Growing, Jo Cockin is shown in another photograph instructing students how to spray trees with noxious sounding Nico dust.

Alpine specialist and photographer Valerie Finnis was, of course, a student and later a tutor at Waterperry, joining the college in 1942.  Looking again at the composition of Valerie’s photographs from those early years of her life at Waterperry, it’s likely that Beaton’s wartime images were a significant influence in her portrait work.  Garden People (2007), the book about Valerie’s life, contains a striking image of two students balanced on stepladders in the walled garden tying in the shoots of a fan-trained peach tree.  Intent on their work and with their backs to the camera, this rather unusual pose, together with the stylised symmetry of the photograph is highly reminiscent of Beaton’s approach.

Waterperry is currently in the process of digitising their archive, which includes glass negatives of some of Beaton’s photographs taken in their gardens for the Ministry of Information.  As this work progresses, it’s hoped eventually to be able to attach names to more of the faces in these evocative images, and gain further insights into the lives of those who participated in Beatrix Havergal’s remarkable Horticultural College.

In the meantime, I hope you’ll agree Cecil Beaton has captured something uplifting in the achievement of these women working together as a team to produce much needed food for the nation.  Links to the photographs and other sources below:

‘The exterior of Waterperry House. A horticultural school for women now training students in all branches of agriculture and horticulture with special regard to producing disease free crops.’ © IWM DB243

‘Working on the beds which are planned for space saving. Lettuces are planted between tomatoes.’ © IWM DB246

‘Watering time in the frames for the cucumbers and marrows.’ © IWM DB247

‘Expert knowledge of all glass house plants is combined with practical experience of planting and growing.’ © IWM DB248

‘A girl is tying up tomatoes out-of-doors.’ © IWM DB250

‘Beatrix Havergal, Principal of Waterperry, trained horticulture expert, now trains girls to become efficient gardeners and students of both the practical and theoretical side of horticulture. Here she is tending to the grape vines.’ © IWM DB251

‘The tractors and machines used for haymaking in the fields are all worked by the students.’ © IWM DB253

‘Picking tomatoes for market day.’ © IWM DB254

‘Washing lettuces and vegetables before packing them up for the weekly market day in Oxford where they are sold at the school’s own shop in the market.’ © IWM DB255

‘Tomato plants ready for the van to go to Oxford market.’ © IWM DB256

‘Packing the van with vegetables for market. All fruit and vegetables grown for study purposes are sold in the market.’ © IWM DB257

‘The Plant Junior Hoe which saves time and labour and hoes fields of carrots in record time. Easily handled by women.’ © IWM DB258

‘Hard work but fun, digging a trough for seed sowing in the experimental vegetable growing fields.’ © IWM DB259

‘Two girls sowing seeds in a field.’ © IWM DB260

‘Disease free fruit is grown in connection with the research station at East Malling, Kent. Here a student is potting strawberry runners. All the plants are grown in groups widely separated from one another so that should any blight occur it does not spread and the whole group is destroyed.’ © IWM DB261

‘Under the strawberry nets. Pounds are sent to market in Oxford and used for jam making.’ © IWM DB262

‘A young girl carrying onion plants.’ © IWM DB263

‘Thinning onions and assuring a good crop and no more onion shortages for the housewives of Britain.’ © IWM DB264

‘It takes two to spray a fruit tree. One girl pumps at the barrel while the other holds the spray to reach the highest boughs. Spraying fruit trees is one of the most important steps in producing high grade disease free fruit.’ © IWM DB265

‘Dust-blower spraying fruit trees to protect them against insects and pests. Nico dust is one of the modern discoveries of pest control. Miss Cockin Head of the Fruit Growing Staff shows students the correct way to spray trees in the apple orchard.’ © IWM DB265

‘In the tomato houses trimming and training plants takes neat fingers, work for which women are especially suited.’ © IWM DB249

‘Food production demands full time work but the students work on the herbaceous border in their off hours. Learning about plants and flowers and preserving one of the most beautiful borders in Oxfordshire.’

Further reading:

Cecil Beaton’s WW2 photographs for the Ministry of Information at the Imperial War Museum here

Waterperry Gardens here

Beatrix Havergal on Wikipedia here

An English Picnic

Picnic at Longleate from Humphry Repton’s Fragments on the theory and practice of landscape gardening (1816)

Who doesn’t love a summer picnic?  Here, in London, as soon as the sun begins to shine, it seems that every public green space, regardless of size, is pressed into service as a picnicking venue. Outdoor dining, in various forms, grew in popularity in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, alongside the fashion for day excursions to picturesque spots, landscape gardens and historic sites.

The picnic, or pique-nique has its origins in 18th century France, describing an indoor, male-only gathering, where invited guests contributed food and drink.  As French nationals fled revolutionary France for England, picnics, in their indoor format, and often including an amateur theatrical performance, started to become popular in London.

Another French term for a shared meal, which took place outdoors in a rural setting, was Le Repas Champêtre.  This gathering was open to women and children, as well as men.  In Le Repas Champêtre / Costumes de Lucerne (1820s), by the Swiss artist, Gabriel Lory le fils, a group of agricultural workers in traditional dress share a meal under a tree on the edge of a hayfield, surrounded by their rakes.  It’s likely the women are also working, perhaps taking it in turns to look after a baby and toddler under the shade of a large tree.

Le Repas Champetre / Costumes de Lucerne 1820s after Gabriel Lory le fils © The Trustees of the British Museum

It was this atmosphere of idealised rural simplicity that wealthier classes wished to re-create, although their version of Le Repas Champêtre was activity of leisure, rather than a daily necessity.  An English print entitled The Anglers Repast (1789), shows a well-dressed group setting up their outdoor meal helped by a black servant, who is unloading their boat and passing a bottle of wine to one of the guests.  The use of the word ‘repast’ suggests a modest meal appropriate for a working fisherman, but the presence of a servant, the group’s clothes and the household chairs transported for the comfort of the female guests all indicate this fishing excursion is entirely for pleasure.

The Anglers Repast 1789 William Ward after George Morland © The Trustees of the British Museum

The Spinnie 1810 – 1839 circa William Harvey © The Trustees of the British Museum

From the early 19th century the term picnic started to be used more broadly in England to include outdoor gatherings where food was consumed.  The historian Alexander Lee records several examples of picnics in books for children, the journals of Dorothy Wordsworth and most famously in Jane Austen’s Emma (1815) which describes the fractious picnic outing to Box Hill, Surrey.

Detail of Picnic at Longleate from Humphry Repton’s Fragments on the theory and practice of landscape gardening (1816)

An impressive double page illustration from Humphry Repton’s Fragments on the theory and practice of landscape gardening (1816) provides a glimpse of a picnic excursion to Prospect Hill, at the Longleat Estate in Wiltshire. Two women are seated on the ground on what looks to be a white tablecloth, which one of the servants is arranging for them, while their two male companions survey the scene.  The second servant is unpacking a basket containing wine and other paraphernalia for their enjoyment including a parasol.

Repton is clearly approving of excursions like these, applauding the Marquis of Bath for his generosity in welcoming visitors to his estate:

‘This magnificent Park, so far from being kept locked up to exclude mankind from partaking of its scenery, is always open, and parties are permitted to bring their refreshments; which circumstance tends to enliven the scene, to extend a more general knowledge of its beauties to strangers, and to mark the liberality of its Noble Proprietor, in thus deigning to participate with others the good he enjoys.’

The popularity of country seats with their grand gardens as picnicking spots is revealed in prints showing gatherings at Stourhead, also in Wiltshire, Forde Abbey in Dorset and at Leeds Castle in Kent.  Sheltered by a bank, shaded by a tree, or close to open water, the participants look relaxed in their idyllic surroundings.

Ford Abbey, Dorsetshire. 19th century, anon © The Trustees of the British Museum

Leeds Castle, Kent 1800 James Storer after John Nixon © The Trustees of the British Museum

Gardens at Stourhead, Co. Wilts George Cooke, after John ‘Warwick’ Smith © The Trustees of the British Museum

Richmond 1819 James Charles Allen after Ramsey Richard Reinagle © The Trustees of the British Museum

An English Scene 1830 – 1850 circa
Alfred Ashley © The Trustees of the British Museum

Images of picnics influenced by The Romantic Movement have their own particular character.  Their focus on wild places, and the appreciation of nature is apparent, showing mixed groups of men and women enjoying the mountains of the Lake District and the coast of Cornwall.  These participants seem more self–reliant, transporting their own refreshments and equipment, without the help of servants, to a viewpoint from which to appreciate the spectacular scenery.

In Derwent Water, Cumberland (1849) by George Baxter (1804 – 1867) it’s not difficult to imagine William and Dorothy Wordsworth at a gathering like this with their circle of literary friends  – which was doubtless what Baxter had in mind when he produced this souvenir of Cumberland, a destination popularised by Wordsworth’s poetry and cultural commentaries.  The group’s lively conversation is significant, hinting at the importance to the Romantic Movement of group excursions like these as an opportunity to exchange ideas, as well as to appreciate the views.

Baxter was a pioneer of colour printing, and his system involved a key plate, over which a sequence of separate colours were added in a specific order.  Although his patented process was successful and popular, his business was never profitable.  This print also appeared as an illustration in the books Loitering among the Lakes and the Scripture Pocket Book.  (As part of researching this subject, I’ve realised we have Baxter’s charming print, bought at auction in Cumbria as part of a larger lot, and presently residing in our spare room – now with greater honour, knowing the British Museum has one in their collection.)

Derwent Water, Cumberland
Print by George Baxter using his patent oil printing process (1849) © The Trustees of the British Museum

Windermere lake, looking down William Le Petit after George Pickering © The Trustees of the British Museum

Cornwall 1836 – 1864 circa Ebenezer Challis after Thomas Challom © The Trustees of the British Museum

Whatever kind of picnic you enjoy, I hope these images will tempt you on your own excursion this summer.  While fashions come and go, the appeal of the picnic is unchanging.

Most of these prints are from the British Museum’s online collection – links below:

The British Museum Collection online here

Alexander Lee’s History of the Picnic in History Today here

Humphry Repton’s Fragments on the theory and practice of landscape gardening here

George Baxter, engraver and printer, Wikipedia here

Julien Gérardin’s Spring Blossom

Autochromes by Julien Gérardin from the collection of the École Supérieure d’art et de design de Nancy (ÉNSAD)

Now, in April, the overwhelming wonder of cherry blossom heralds the season of spring.  Over one hundred years ago, Julien Géradin documented the spectacular beauty of cherry orchards in flower in a series of autochromes taken at the gardens at Jarville, near Nancy, eastern France, and in the surrounding countryside.

Enormous, established trees tower above the women posed next to them, speaking of a time before the mass industrialisation of agriculture, and before smaller, more compact trees were introduced for ease of pruning and harvesting.  Between the widely spaced trees, the grass is unmown and filled with wild flowers.

It’s all too easy to over expose images of white flowers in bright light, and Gérardin avoids this, both by choosing slightly overcast conditions, and by making use of the shade cast by the canopy of the trees.  The clusters of white flowers, almost luminous in places, fade and darken towards the edge of the image, seeming to melt into the thick, black border of the photograph.

Photographs of women posed in outdoor locations, typically with parasols, or coloured shawls, was a convention started by the Lumière brothers, inventors of the autochrome, as a device to demonstrate, and market, their colour photographic process.  Gérardin continues this convention in his work, and the shawls worn by his models in peach, apricot and terracotta shades provide a point of focus amongst the cool textures and tones of the blossom and meadow.

Géradin’s use of colour is always considered, and occasionally he rejects coloured props altogether.  In one image, a simple white blouse worn by a young woman seems to amplify both the clouds of pale blossom above her head, and the fallen petals beneath her feet; while the inky black of her coat and long skirt echoes the dark trunks of the trees.  Occasionally, however, the formality of the women’s clothes, especially the elaborate hats worn by some of his models, creates a curious tension with the naturalistic, rural setting.

Géradin frequently included local agricultural workers in his photographs, sometimes posed on their own, or in groups with baskets, rakes and other gardening paraphernalia.  Instead of shawls, they wear coloured aprons.  The young woman in a light blue blouse who features in a number of these images was a servant in the household at Jarville.

The flowering trees hardly ever appear in their entirety in Géradin’s photographs.  By presenting them cropped in this way, he suggests an even greater abundance of blossom beyond the confines of the frame, and creates a sense that the memory of this spectacle, whilst powerful, is always fragmentary.

Julien Gérardin (1860 – 1924) worked as a notary in the French town of Nancy, where he also lived.  As an amateur photographer, and member of the prestigious Société Lorraine de Photographie, he produced hundreds of autochromes in the early years of the 20th century which are now part of the collection of the École Supérieure d’art et de design de Nancy (ÉNSAD) and include many images of plants, parks and gardens.  With great generosity, ÉNSAD has digitised all Géradin’s work, which is available on their website for all to enjoy – links as usual below.

Femme Dans La Campagne

Femme Dans La Campagne

Femme Dans La Campagne (Houdemont)

Femme Dans La Campagne (Houdemont)

Dans La Campagne

Femme au jardin en fleurs

Femme au jardin en fleurs

Femme au jardin

Femme en costume japonaise dans le jardin (Jarville)

Femme en costume japonaise dans le jardin (Jarville)

Femmes sous un arbre en fleurs

Trois paysannes ou servantes à la brouette

Servante ou paysanne au jardin

Servante ou paysanne au jardin

Servante ou paysanne au jardin

Servante ou paysanne au jardin

Further reading:

Autochromes at ÉNSAD here

Julien Gérardin’s Wikipedia entry here

Science and Media Museum’s History of the Autochrome here

The Sick Rose: A Botanical Exploration

Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

There’s something sinister about the tangled, prickly stems framing William Blake’s illustration for his song, The Sick Rose.  The large, crimson flowered rose is no longer upright; it has collapsed, its beautiful head now lying on the ground, alerting us that all is not well in the garden.

At the top of the image, where we might expect a healthy rose to appear, is the arched, segmented body of a caterpillar.  Its shape seems to mimic the pattern of the prickly rose stem just behind it; perhaps a natural camouflage device offering some protection from predatory birds, or a gardener seeking to remove it before more damage is done.

Sometimes called the ‘worm i’ the bud’, a moth larvae was once well known for attacking rose buds and hollowing them out from the inside, spoiling the flowers.  The florist, Thomas Hogg, writing in 1822 observes that rose buds, ‘are very often destroyed in the spring by a small dark red grub, which feeds upon them, folds itself up in the leaves, and then changes into a moth chrysalis;’.  John Fraser, who managed a plant nursery in Lea Bridge Road, East London in the mid-19th century, refers to a caterpillar which attacks the rose shoots as soon as they begins to grow and suggests picking the pests off by hand.

It’s unclear exactly when this troublesome caterpillar disappeared from the English garden, and unlikely that it was mourned by gardeners – but its loss is an indicator of the gradual decline in biodiversity.  It would also explain why we no longer know much about this moth, which is not mentioned in today’s gardening literature.

Used as a metaphor for sexual violence in The Sick Rose, the relationship between the rose and the caterpillar is echoed in popular songs from the late eighteenth century.  Published by Joseph Ritson, A Select Collection of English Songs (1783) contains songs where women are symbolised by the rose, and where the interaction between a rose and an insect is sexualised.

In one of these songs, adapted from a Spanish madrigal by Mr Garrick, a bee is attracted away from a damask rose by the sweetness of a young woman named Louisa, and leaves his sting in her lip.  This verse from another song, by Sir William Yonge explores a similar theme:

‘With wanton flight the curious bee
From flow’r to flow’r still wanders free;
And where each blossom blows,
Extracts the juice of all he meets,
But, for his quintessence of sweets

He ravishes the rose.’

By replacing the bee with a caterpillar, in The Sick Rose, a creature people were far less well disposed towards, the attack on the rose seems more shocking.  Instead of flying by day, like the bee, the moth flies unseen by night, suggesting danger. As the tiny eggs laid on the rose bud hatch, they will eventually cause its destruction.

Joseph Ritson (1752 – 1803) was a significant figure in the life of William Blake.  A publisher who employed Blake as a commercial artist, Ritson produced compilations of English and Scottish songs, poetry, literature, fairy tales and nursery rhymes; all subjects that interested and inspired Blake.

A Select Collection of English Songs appeared in three volumes; the first is a compilation of love songs, the second a collection of drinking songs and other miscellaneous songs and ballads, while the third contains musical notation for the songs.  Blake provided several engravings for this book, taken from a series of paintings by James Stodhart.

In the light of Blake’s involvement with Ritson’s song collection, it seems evident that Blake has drawn inspiration from the songs it contains.  Throughout his Songs of Innocence and Experience, Blake uses the conventional forms of these popular lyrics, but adjusts the content, reflecting his own unconventional viewpoint.

A Select Collection of English Songs Vol 1
Engraving by William Blake after Stothard

A Select Collection of English Songs Vol 1
Engraving by William Blake after Stothard

A Select Collection of English Songs Vol 1
Disdain returned

A Select Collection of English Songs Vol 2
(engraving – Heath)

Blake’s image of The Sick Rose is highly stylised, and not really possible to identify as a particular species or variety, but we know that at the end of the 18th century, the range of roses grown in England was a fraction of those available today.  In Roses, or, A monograph of the genus Rosa (1805), the author Henry Charles Andrews estimates ‘within a hundred’ varieties were cultivated.   In his book, sixty are illustrated, observed in his friends’ gardens as well as at leading nurseries in Chelsea, and at Loddiges in Hackney.   I’ve included some of the roses from Andrews’ monograph that have thorny stems and red flowers, including the moss rose, which was hugely popular in Georgian gardens.

Moss Rose from Roses, or, A Monograph of the Genus Rosa

Province Rose

Double Sweet Brier or Eglantine Rose

Rosa Gallica, officinal or French Red Rose

Rosa ferox
Fierce or Hedge-hog Rose

It’s now more than two centuries since William Blake published his Songs of Innocence and Experience, and over time, some of the cultural connections they contain, that would have been clear to his contemporaries, have become eroded.  All the texts discussed here, which shed light on these connections, enrich our understanding of Blake’s songs in some way, supplying context and illuminating their meaning.  Thanks as ever to libraries and archives that continue to digitise their collections and make them available.

Further reading:

Songs of Innocence published 1789 and together with Song of Experience 1794
The British Library’s commentary here

Joseph Ritson on Wikipedia here

A Select Collection of English Songs Vol 1 here

Another interesting book about English Songs by John Aikin and Mrs Barbauld:
Essays on Song Writing: with a collection of such English songs as are most eminent for poetical merit (1772) here

Roses, or, A Monograph of the Genus Rosa here

Hippolyte Bayard’s Garden

Self-portrait in the garden
Salted paper print, 1847
All photographs courtesy of the J Paul Getty Museum (unless otherwise stated)

This remarkable image of a man standing in his garden was produced by Hippolyte Bayard (1801 – 1887), an early pioneer of photography.  His record of people and the built environment around Paris, where he lived, provides a vivid insight into the character of cultural life during this period.

Vernacular gardens are by their nature ephemeral places, so Bayard’s photographs from the 1840s showing his own garden, clearly a place he valued, and which features repeatedly in his work, is especially captivating for anyone interested in these spaces.

A strong sense of composition is evident in ‘Self-portrait in the garden’ (1847).  The photographer leans on an enormous barrel, on top of which a tall ceramic vessel is placed, creating a connection between these two bulky objects, while a simple wooden ladder, balanced against the garden wall, adds more height and balance.  If we look closely at the slightly irregular grid of the rustic trellis forming a background to the photograph, stems of a climbing plant are visible, trained along its structure.  At ground level we see various terracotta pots, a watering can, as well as low-growing, evergreen plants – probably box – edging the borders.  As well as plants, Bayard appears to have appreciated the objects and paraphernalia of gardening.

Bayard’s interest in the natural world is clear from his earliest photographic impressions made in the 1830s using salted paper prints and cyanotypes.  He takes great care in the arrangement of plant specimens, feathers, fragments of cloth and lace.  A long raceme of wisteria flowers looks elegant placed next to a leaf with a similar form, while in another image Bayard uses a range of different shapes – the spiky structure of a nigella flower contrasting with the softer outlines of sweet peas and nasturtiums.

Plant specimens
Salted paper print, about 1839 – 1841

Arrangement of flowers
Salted paper print, about 1839 – 1843

Arrangement of Specimens
Cyanotype, about 1842

Three feathers
Cyanotype, 1840 – 1841

Further photographs of Bayard’s garden appear to show the trellis later in the season, clothed with vine leaves.  In ‘Chair and watering can in the garden’, the vine leaves, combined with tall hollyhocks in the flower border fill the frame with foliage, while the empty chair seems to invite the viewer to take a seat and enjoy the lush growth.

Chair and watering can in a garden
Salted paper print from a calotype negative, about 1843 – 1847

Self-portrait in a garden
Salted paper print, about 1845 – 1849

‘Garden Wall with tools’ (September 1844) suggests late summer warmth, with slanting shadows in the bright light, and an open shutter on the right, allowing sunlight into the house.

Garden Wall with tools
Salted paper print, September 1844

Leaves on a trellis
Salted paper print, about 1847

Still Life in Bayard’s Garden: Baskets, Watering Can and Planter Pots
1848

Potted Plant in a Garden
Salted paper print, 1849

The wooden gate in ‘Self-portrait in front of garden’ (1845), is another example of rustic woodwork, and features in several photographs of various visitors to Bayard’s garden.

Self-portrait in front of garden
Hand coloured salted paper print June 1845

Two Men and a Girl in a Garden
Albumenised salted paper print, about 1847

Group portrait in garden
Salted paper print, about 1847

Portrait of Georgina Benoist at gate
Salted paper print, about 1840 -1849

Bayard also produced still life studies of flower arrangements, often using dahlias.  Originally from Mexico, dahlias began to be cultivated as garden plants in Europe in the 1820s.  Dahlias were at the height of their popularity in the 1830s and 40s, when dozens of new double varieties were introduced by plant breeders, including a red flowered form which hadn’t been seen previously.  These plants were highly collectible and still relatively expensive to buy, so represent a nod to Bayard’s engagement with gardening fashions.  ‘Vase of flowers’ (about 1845 – 1846) shows dahlias in pride of place in his arrangement, with the light from a window creating a splash of brightness on a wall and the vase of flowers casting a beautiful shadow.

Vase of flowers
Salted paper print, about 1845 – 1846

Vase of flowers
Salted paper print, 1847

Flowers in a vase
Salted paper print, about 1845 – 1849

Hippolyte Bayard was employed as a civil servant in the 1830s and, according to the J Paul Getty Museum, ‘devoted much of his free time inventing processes that captured and fixed images from nature on paper using a basic camera, chemicals and light.’   However, Bayard’s achievements were overshadowed by the launch of the daguerreotype in 1839.  With the backing of the French government, the daguerreotype became the first commercially successful photographic process.

Bayard’s response to his disappointment at having been overlooked in favour of Daguerre’s rival process was to produce an extraordinary photograph – ‘Self-portrait as a drowned man (1840).  The text written on the back of the image reads:

The corpse of the gentleman you see here . . . is that of Monsieur Bayard, inventor of the process that you have just seen. . . . As far as I know this ingenious and indefatigable experimenter has been occupied for about three years with perfecting his discovery. . . . The Government, who gave much to Monsieur Daguerre, has said it can do nothing for Monsieur Bayard, and the poor wretch has drowned himself. Oh the vagaries of human life! . . . He has been at the morgue for several days, and no-one has recognized or claimed him. Ladies and gentlemen, you’d better pass along for fear of offending your sense of smell, for as you can observe, the face and hands of the gentleman are beginning to decay.’

Bayard’s creation of this photographic alter ego, expressing both his personal pain and his unfair treatment by the French government, is full of satirical complexity.  Today the image seems extraordinarily modern, bringing to mind the work of artists like Cindy Sherman, Robert Mapplethorpe, and many others, who have used photographic self-portraits in their work.

The powerful message of Bayard’s self-portrait seems to have prompted the French Academy of Sciences to recognise and acquire details of his photographic process and Bayard used the money to purchase better equipment to progress his experimentation.  His involvement with photography continued – as well as being a founder member of the Société française de photographie he was also commissioned to record historical sites in France for the Historic Monuments Commission.

Self-portrait as a drowned man 1840
(Wikimedia Commons)

In the studio of Bayard
Salted paper print from a paper negative, about 1845

Links to Bayard’s work at the J Paul Getty Museum below:

Further reading:

J Paul Getty Museum biography of Hippolyte Bayard here

Hippolyte Bayard on Wikipedia here

Curator Carolyn Peter’s reflections on Bayard here

The Stanford Dahlia project here

Remembering Roger Phillips

Wild Flowers of Britain (Pan Books 1977)

Roger Phillips MBE 1932 – 2021

Last November saw the death of artist, photographer and horticultural writer Roger Phillips.  Well known as an author of over thirty books about plants and gardens, published over a long period beginning in the late 1970s, many were collaborations with botanist and horticultural expert Martyn Rix, or his partner, Nicky Foy.

Looking through our collection of gardening books at home, I see we have acquired at least ten of these over the years.  Their accessible style, concise descriptions of plants and abundance of colour photographs enabling readers to identify plants with confidence, made them deservedly popular.  They’re still invaluable guides, including those new to horticulture, the audience for whom they were originally produced.

Phillips’ first book, Wild Flowers of Britain, was published by Pan Books in 1977.  Living in London in the 1970s Phillips felt that his son was missing out on the experience of the countryside, and began taking him on regular weekend trips out of the city.  Becoming curious about wild plants growing in the fields and hedgerows, Phillips found it was not always straightforward to identify these from books containing botanical illustrations.  He was persuaded that colour photography would make this process easier for the beginner, and as he explains in the introduction, Wild Flowers of Britain was his attempt to ‘make the book I needed seven years ago’.

Illustrated with Phillips’ now iconic still life photographs of specimens arranged on a white background, each plant was profiled with its common and Latin name, and a brief description of its characteristics and distribution.  Another aid to identification was the arrangement of plants in chronological flowering order, so the reader could see month by month which plants were likely to be in flower.

An immediate success on publication, Wild Flowers of Britain established a winning format for a series of similar thematic surveys including (amongst many others) Trees of Britain, Europe and North America, Shrubs, Perennials, Bulbs, and Mushrooms, often co-written with Martyn Rix.  As the series developed, photographs of plants growing in their natural habitats were introduced, alongside Phillips’ still life images, assisting our understanding of how plants have travelled from all over the world to find new homes in our gardens.

Poplars, Elm, Hazel, Alder, Willow from Wild Flowers of Britain (1977) Photograph by Roger Phillips

Trees in Britain, Europe and North America (Pan Book 1978)

Bulbs (Pan Books 1989 – first published in 1981)

Shrubs (Pan Books 1994)

Perennials Volume 1 Early Perennials (Pan Books 1993)

Herbs (Pan Books 1992)

Annuals and Biennials (Macmillan 1999)

The Quest for the Rose (BBC Books 1993)

Roses were a special interest for both Phillips and Rix and The Quest for the Rose, both a book and a TV series, (BBC Books 1993) was a monumental project , uncovering the origins of garden roses.

The account of their journey to China, written in diary form, is especially vivid, as they search for wild rose species and cultivars first imported to Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries.  These roses were hugely significant in the development of repeat flowering roses, such as hybrid teas.  We share their excitement as they encounter these important roses, still growing by roadsides, in public parks and in the gardens of Chinese farmers.  On finding the Tea-scented Rose, Rosa gigantea growing in a ditch close to the Burma Road in Kunming, Phillips records, ‘we all fell out over whether the scent actually was in any way reminiscent of tea.’

This section could almost be a book in itself – as could the pithy biographical profiles of important rose breeders which appear throughout the text.

The Ultimate Guide to Roses (Macmillan 2004)

A Photographic Garden History (Macmillan 1995)

A Photographic Garden History (Macmillan 1995) was written over a number of years with Phillips’ partner Nicky Foy.  Divided into three sections, it covers European, Chinese and Japanese garden styles through the ages.  As its title suggests, much space is devoted to photographs of the various gardens, and these are recorded in the same pragmatic way as Phillips recorded plants; without flattery and showing them as the average visitor might see them.

Phillips was also expert at distilling the spirit of each garden in his succinct descriptions.  At Versailles, he relates an account of ‘how flowers were bedded out even on freezing winter days so that Louis could proudly show his treasure to guests and any flowers that drooped in the icy conditions were changed during dinner so that the display remained immaculate.’  The wealth and power of French royalty in the 18th century, and the absurdity of its extravagance, are perfectly captured in this small detail.

Roger Phillips was born in Uxbridge, west London and studied painting at Chelsea School of Art before becoming a trainee art director at the advertising agency Ogilvy & Mather.  He turned freelance in the late sixties.  Alongside his writing career, Phillips was also a practical gardener, establishing collections of ceanothus, camellias and climbing roses at Eccleston Square, in London, where he was Honorary Garden Manager.

Phillips saw himself as a pioneer of using colour photography ‘as a reliable means of identifying plants’.  His use of colour was pragmatic and practical, and also egalitarian – by using the visual language of popular culture, and commerce, he aligned himself with the public and found a connection with them.  Some of his still life plant portraits from Wild Flowers of Britain are preserved in the V&A’s photography collection.

Always generous with his encyclopedic plant knowledge, Phillips’ enthusiasm for his subject is infectious, as is his passion for educating others and inviting the reader to accompany him on his personal voyage of discovery.  The popularity of his books means they are still readily available and well worth searching out.

Further reading:

Eccleston Square Gardens here

The Guardian Obituary Roger Phillips here

Martin Engelbrecht’s Parterre Gardener

The Parterre Gardener
50 coloured plates engraved by Martin Engelbrecht, from eighteenth century German works. Courtesy Wellcome Collection.

This professional gardener, posed with the tools of his trade, a selection of choice garden plants and a design for a fashionable parterre garden, was engraved by the German artist Martin Engelbrecht (1684 – 1756).  The Parterre Gardener is just one example from Engelbrecht’s series of coloured engravings depicting caricatures of tradesmen and their wives; a project remarkable for the traders’ elaborate costumes, constructed out of items used in their line of work.

The array of items they sell – from clocks and musical instruments to spices and medicines, suggests the status of these traders is far above the humble street hawker – these are suppliers of luxury goods and services to a wealthy clientele.  While the traders’ youthful faces and fine clothes display confidence and indicate success in their chosen professions, the exaggerated stylisation of their costumes, beyond any ordinary practicality, imparts a doll or puppet like character to these figures.

Our parterre gardener is dressed in a smart green jacket, edged with lace and gold brocade – perhaps a costume in which to meet clients rather than engage in hands-on gardening.  Flanked by two citrus trees in containers, he is located in a walled garden containing three precisely constructed parterre beds, demonstrating the quality of his work.

His tools include a rake, a hoe and an edger, while suspended from the arm of his jacket are pegs for laying out parterre designs, a pocket knife, a sickle and gardening scissors – all used for pruning and shaping plants before the invention of the secateurs and lopper.

The flowers which decorate the gardener’s straw hat and jacket include red and white roses, daffodils, white lilies, hyacinth, snowdrops and peony – as well as striped or ‘broken’ tulips.  Under his arm is a terracotta pot containing carnations, another example of blooms especially popular with ‘florists or collectors of flowering plants in the 17th and 18th centuries.

Balanced against a lemon tree, the gardener’s drawing for a parterre garden indicates his skill as a designer.  His dynamic pose, as if approaching to greet the viewer (or client) underlines his ability both to plan and implement a stylish, contemporary garden.

The Parterre Gardener’s Wife
50 coloured plates engraved by Martin Engelbrecht, from eighteenth century German works. Courtesy Wellcome Collection.

Most of Engelbrecht’s tradespeople are accompanied by their wives, also wearing costumes incorporating elements relating to their husbands’ businesses.  The parterre gardener’s wife is dressed in a vibrant yellow dress with a blue bodice, shaped to resemble a flower pot.  Her basket is full of flowers, broadly similar to those worn by her husband, but with the addition of a sunflower (perhaps to complement the colour of her dress) and the herb marjoram.  Next to her, in wooden containers, are fine examples of an aloe and a flowering yucca plant.

Perhaps the women were included partly to give the artist another opportunity to show his skill and ingenuity in constructing elaborate sets of costumes – but at the same time, it is known that women in this period became involved in family businesses, in a variety of ways, if not as equal partners.  In any case, it is pleasing to see them represented as part of the series.

Based in Augsberg, Germany, and sometimes working with his brother Christian, another accomplished engraver, Martin Engelbrecht was also known for his paper miniature theatres.

His extraordinary series of coloured engravings of tradespeople can be found at the Wellcome Collection’s website – full details below.

Link to Engelbrecht’s tradespeople here

Link to Martin Engelbrecht’s wikipedia entry here

Valerie Finnis and the World of Alpine Gardening

Colour photograph of Valerie Finnis. Undated. Valerie Finnis / RHS Lindley Collections

Last month it was my great honour to deliver a short presentation about the horticulturalist and photographer Valerie Finnis, for Colour Fever, an online celebration of colour photography organised by the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.

Under a broad heading of Colour, Amateurs and the Role of Societies, I discussed Valerie’s involvement with the Alpine Garden Society and the Royal Horticultural Society, her documentation of alpine plants, and her portraits of alpine garden enthusiasts.  This connection with alpine gardening is, of course, just one thread of Valerie’s interesting life and photographic output, but with so many possible angles, I was grateful for a precise framework to focus my research.

My thanks to the RHS Lindley Library for their permission to publish these photographs from the presentation, enabling me to share some of Valerie’s original and uplifting work.

Colour photograph of Waterperry students in Valerie Finnis’ Alpine House. Undated. Valerie Finnis / RHS Lindley Collections

This photograph, taken in the 1950s, shows two students at the Waterperry Horticultural School for Women – one is arranging pots containing alpine plants, while another waters them.  It was taken by Valerie Finnis who trained as a professional gardener at Waterperry, near Oxford, in the 1940s.  It was here that she developed her fascination with alpine plants, becoming an expert in this field of horticulture.

Colour photograph – [ trees and flowers (Trollius Europaeus?) on mountain slopes]. Undated. Valerie Finnis / RHS Lindley Collections

As their name suggests, alpine plants are found in mountainous regions of the world and have evolved to grow in a habitat that experiences exposed conditions, extremes of climate and thin, rocky soils.  Many have very brightly coloured flowers which has made them popular with collectors.  This photograph, taken by Valerie in the European Alps, gives a flavour of the alpine environment.

Colour photograph of Wilhelm Schacht, curator of the Munich Botanical Garden. Undated. Valerie Finnis / RHS Lindley Collections

Valerie learned about the process of photography in the mid 1950s from Wilhelm Schacht, the Curator of the Munich Botanical Garden.  He gave her a Rolleiflex camera which she continued to use for decades.  Schacht was also an alpine plant enthusiast and is pictured here in the Italian Dolomites, where he and Valerie first met each other.

Valerie’s photographic work falls into two distinct themes  – her portraits of plants and portraits of people, from her wide circle of friends associated with gardening.

Collins Guide to Alpines by Anna N. Griffith (1964)

The Collins Guide to Alpines and Rock Garden Plants was first published in 1964 and is a good example of the kind of specialist publication where Valerie’s photographs of plants appeared. It was written by Anna Griffith, one of a circle of alpine plant enthusiasts who were friends and associates of Valerie.  Two hundred of Valerie’s photographs were used in this book, which Griffiths notes came from Valerie’s ‘extensive collection’.

Anna Griffith was an original member of the Alpine Garden Society (established in 1929) and, according to the cover of the Collins Guide, had grown ‘practically every plant described in the book’.

Collins Guide to Alpines by Anna N. Griffith (1964)

These pages show how Valerie’s colour photographs make identification of these low growing alpine plants much easier for the reader than looking at black and white images.   The colour photography also played a role in popularising alpine gardening – transforming the plants into desirable items for people to buy, and start to build their own collections.

Collins Guide to Alpines by Anna N. Griffith (1964)

The diagrams on the left correspond to the pots filled with saxifrage plants shown in the photographs, and a key lists the name of each variety. Again, we can see how similar these tiny plants are, and how much the colour photographs help the reader to tell them apart.

This Collins guide was re-printed several times and it remains a tribute to the knowledge and expertise of both these women.

Colour photograph of roses, undated. Valerie Finnis / RHS Lindley Collections

While Valerie certainly started as an amateur photographer, she was confident enough in her work to promote it, and by the 1960s and 70s Valerie enjoyed some success as a plant photographer.  She was represented by the Harry Smith Collection, who specialised in garden related content.

As well as books and magazines, her work was also used in advertising print campaigns and for items like greetings cards and calendars.  Here we see an original transparency showing a still life of roses, which would have been cropped and colour corrected for commercial use.

Colour photograph of judging at an RHS Westminster show. Pictured are: David Shackleton, Captain G.K. Mooney, Sir Fredrick Stern, E. B. Anderson, John Mowat, Randle ‘R.B.’ Cooke, and W.G. Robinson. Undated. Valerie Finnis / RHS Lindley Collections

Since the 1920s the Alpine Garden Society has organised regular competitive plant shows which take place all over the UK.  These shows are judged by the Joint Rock Committee – a group of people made up of members of the Royal Horticultural Society, Alpine Garden Society and the Scottish Rock Garden Club.  Valerie was a member of the Joint Rock committee for twenty years, from 1962 – 1982.

This photograph taken at the Royal Horticultural Society in London shows the atmosphere at these events.  There’s a strong sense of a community, with members exchanging views and ideas.

Colour photograph – ‘Ken Aslett by RHS.. Hall. V Finnis pits for GS show on pavement’. Undated. Valerie Finnis / RHS Lindley Collections

This photograph shows a selection of alpine plants from Valerie’s own collection, in the process of being unloaded from her Morris Minor car for a show at Vincent Square.  The bursts of colour provided by the flowers make a striking contrast with the greyness of post-war London, and the red lining of the interior of her car door also adds to the success of the photograph.

Colour photograph of RHS Committee Judges Gerard Parker, Herbert Clifford Crook (1882-1974) and Saunders. Undated. Valerie Finnis / RHS Lindley Collections

This photograph seems like a good introduction to the other strand of Valerie’s work – her portraits of people.  While Valerie’s photographs of plants are quite conventional, her approach to photographing people is more unusual. As a photographer Valerie shows a tendency to depict gardening experts and enthusiasts in ways that might appear strange, ironic, or even ridiculous, to outsiders.

The intense gaze of this group makes them look slightly terrifying, as they stand guard over the Alpine Garden Society’s stall at a show. So, while there’s a clear documentary thread to Valerie’s work, the objectivity we might expect from a documentary photographer is sometimes absent, or compromised in some way.

Colour photograph of an Alpine Garden Society plant sale in Kent. Undated. Valerie Finnis / RHS Lindley Collections

This crowd of sensibly dressed people at an Alpine Garden Society plant sale in Kent, each with a collection of plant pots at their feet, is apparently listening politely to a speech – on the right hand edge of the image we can just see a man addressing the gathering.  The unusual composition of this photograph, with the enthusiasts’ backs to the camera, establishes the photographer as an observer and helps to create the slightly absurd feeling of the occasion.

Colour photograph of Clarence Elliott, in his alpine greenhouse at Six Hills Nursery in Stevenage. Undated. Valerie Finnis / RHS Lindley Collections

Clarence Elliott founded the Six Hills Nursery in Stevenage in 1907, and was responsible for popularising the use of stone troughs for miniature alpine gardensMiniature alpine gardens were very popular in the 1960s and 70s, and for those who couldn’t afford a stone trough, old ceramic butler sinks were sometimes used as a cheaper alternative.

Valerie uses the location of the glasshouse in lots of her individual portraits of alpine enthusiasts.  I like the way Valerie uses the shape of the glasshouse window to frame her picture.

Colour photograph of Cecilia Christie-Miller and her father admiring alpine plants in the alpine house. Undated. Valerie Finnis / RHS Lindley Collections

Valerie captures perfectly the gentle pride and admiration these alpine enthusiasts have for their plants.  I like the contrast between the vertical lines of the glasshouse windows and the soft, rounded shapes of the flowering plants.

Brent Elliot, former Head Librarian at the RHS Lindley Library, who knew Valerie, told me that as well as taking photographs of alpine specialists, she also recorded interviews with them – the idea was eventually to produce a book about them – but this project was never realised.

Colour photograph of alpine enthusiasts and Alpine Garden Society members Mr. and Mrs. Gerard Parker. Undated. Valerie Finnis / RHS Lindley Collections

Another theme Valerie uses in her portraits is posture – she often shows people in the act of gardening, bending, kneeling down or adopting other postures appropriate to the activity.  This couple are Mr and Mrs Gerard Parker, described as stalwarts of the Alpine Garden Society.  Here, they’re bending down to examine snowdrops in flower.  I like the detail of the man’s leather briefcase and the woman’s plastic mac.

Colour photograph of Sir David Scott and Finnis gardening at Boughton House, Northamptonshire on their wedding day. Undated. Valerie Finnis / RHS Lindley Collections

This photograph shows Valerie and her husband Sir David Scott, weeding their rock garden, apparently on the occasion of their wedding day in 1970.  According to Ursula Buchan, Valerie’s biographer, ‘An hour after they were married at Weekley church in Northamptonshire, they were out in the garden weeding.’

By photographing herself and David in this unusual pose, perhaps it somehow ‘permits’ Valerie to use the same candid approach when photographing other people?

Colour photograph of Sir David Scott. Undated. Valerie Finnis / RHS Lindley Collections

Sir David Scott was a retired diplomat and is pictured here in the garden of the Dower House at Boughton House, in Northamptonshire, where they lived.  Valerie’s marriage opened the door to a completely new social circle for her – which Valerie seems to have relished.  Many of Sir David’s society friends had large gardens and took an active interest in their upkeep.  Soon Valerie was photographing these new friends – who she recorded in the same style as her alpine circle.

Colour photograph – ‘Mrs William ( Parsley) Mure, London [ Cecily Mure, Buckingham Palace Mews]. Undated. Valerie Finnis / RHS Lindley Collections

Valerie was very observant of the clothes people wore to garden in, and the attire worn by gardeners is a recurrent theme in her work.  This photograph shows Cecily Mure, watering her alpine trough in the front garden of Buckingham Palace Mews, dressed as if she is about to go out to a party. Valerie seems to have relished recording anyone who was dressed inappropriately for the garden task they were performing.

Colour photograph of Rhoda, Lady Birley (1900-1981), undated. Married to society painter Oswald Birley, Rhoda maintained the gardens of Charleston Manor Sussex and in 1935 set up a Summer festival in the grounds, which continues to this day. Valerie Finnis / RHS Lindley Collections

Continuing the theme of gardening clothes, this striking portrait shows Lady Rhoda Birley, apparently working in a long border in her garden at Charleston Manor, in Sussex.  The clashing colours of her gardening costume, the border flowers and the red handles of her loppers creates a dilemma for the viewer.  Are we looking at the epitome of good taste, or something else?

Garden People Valerie Finnis and The Golden Age of Gardening (Thames & Hudson 2007)

‘For years plants used to be more important than people to me.  But really it’s only people that matter.’

After Valerie’s death in 2006, her friends felt it was important to make a record of her life and her photographic legacy.  The main text is written by Ursula Buchan, and the photographer Howard Sooley was involved in the selection of Valerie’s photographs – around 200 are used in the book.  Brent Elliott contributed profiles of some of the horticulturalists known by Valerie, which reads like a ‘Who’s Who’ of gardening in the 1970s and 80s.

It’s well worth tracking down a copy of Garden People, to see further examples of Valerie’s photographic work and discover more about her life and career. Although it’s out of print, it’s still quite easy to find second hand copies. Valerie’s original way of recording alpine gardening as a cultural activity, her confident use of colour, and her success as a plant photographer, give her work a highly distinctive voice – beyond the world of gardening.

Special thanks to Catlin Langford (Curatorial Fellow) and Ella Ravilious (Curator) at the V&A for the opportunity to participate in Colour Fever, to Sarah McDonald at the RHS Lindley Library and to Valerie’s friends Brent Elliott and photographer Sue Snell for taking the time to speak to me about her work.

Further reading:

Valerie Finnis (1924 – 2006) Wikipedia here

RHS Lindley Library here

The Alpine Garden Society here