Author Archives: plantingdiaries

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

John Parkinson’s Autumn Fruits

1. The true Service tree 2. The ordinary Service tree 3. The common Medlar tree 4. The Medlar of Naples 5. The Nettle tree 6. The Pishamin or Virginia Plumme 7. The Cornell Cherry tree  From Paradisi in Sole Paradisus Terrestris by John Parkinson (Getty Research Institute)

It’s astonishing to see, in the section devoted to the orchard in John Parkinson’s horticultural reference book Paradisi in Sole Paradisus Terrestris (1629), the wide range of fruits available in England in the early 17th century.  Some of these, such as apples, pears, plums and even quinces are familiar to us – but others like Cornelian cherries, medlars and service berries are no longer grown so widely, or seen for sale today.

Alongside his notes about cultivation, Parkinson also records how these fruits were prepared and processed both for use in the kitchen, and for medical purposes.  As a founder member of the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries, Parkinson was well placed to advise on issues of health.  His detailed notes are a reminder of the importance of the garden as a source of medicine, as well as sustenance.

John Parkinson’s botanical garden in Long Acre, close to Covent Garden, has long since disappeared beneath modern London.  But the combination of these coloured woodcuts, mostly by the German artist Christopher Switzer, and Parkinson’s own observations about the plants he collected and grew there, brings his garden to life again.

Here follow just a few examples of ‘fruitbearing trees and shrubbes’ known to Parkinson, taken from the Getty Research Institute’s digitised version of the book with its spectacular coloured illustrations.

1. The true Service tree 2. The ordinary Service tree

Parkinson notes that two varieties of service tree, a close relation of the rowan, were considered to have berries that were edible and were cultivated in orchards.  According to Parkinson, the ‘ordinary Service tree’ was introduced by John Tradescant and bears fruits shaped ‘some round like an Apple, and in others a little longer like a Peare’.   These fruits are ‘mellowed’, like medlars, before eating:

‘They are gathered when they growe to be neare ripe (and that is never before they have felt some frosts) and being tyed together, are either hung up in some warme room, to ripen them thoroughly, that they may bee eaten or, (as some use to doe) lay them in strawe, chaffe, or branne to ripen them.’

7. The Cornell Cherry tree

The Cornelian cherry (Cornus mas), or Cornell tree as Parkinson calls it, is shown both bearing fruit and a cluster of small, yellow flowers which appear in early spring.  He records that the cherries are popular when in season, but appears not wholly convinced as to their flavour:

‘the fruit are long and round berries, with the bignesse of small Olives, with an hard round stone within them, like unto an Olive stone, and are of a yellowish red when they are ripe, of a reasonable pleasant taste, yet somewhat austere withall.’

1. The small blacke Grape 2. The great blew Grape 3. The Muscadine Grape 4. The burler Grape 5. The Raysins of the sunne Grape 6. The Figge tree 7.

These splendid bunches of grapes represent just a fraction of the varieties known to cultivation in England the early 17th century.  Parkinson records that his friend, John Tradescant has twenty varieties growing in his Lambeth garden, but cannot put a name to all of them.  As an apothecary, Parkinson mentions multiple uses for products derived from the vine in the treatment of illness, from wine, to vine leaves and raisins:

‘Wine is usually taken both for drinke and for medicine, and is often put into sawces, broths, cawdles and gellies that are given to the sicke.  Also into divers Physicall drinkes to be as a vehiculum for the properties of the ingredients.’

‘The greene leaves of the Vine are cooling and binding, and therefore good to put among other herbes that make gargles and lotions for sore mouths.  And also to put into the broths and drinke of those that have hot burning feavers, or any other inflammation.’

Parkinson reports that raisins and currants were imported into England in huge quantities, to be used in cooking and eaten on their own, and that the producers of these dried fruits were amazed at how many were consumed.  He says that the evocatively named Raysins of the Sunne ‘are the best dryed grapes, next unto the Damasco, and are very wholsome to eate fasting, both to nourish, and to helpe loosen the belly.’

1. The Quince tree 2. The Portingall Quince 3. The Peare tree 4. The Winter Bon Chretien 5. The painted or striped Peare of Jerusalem 6. The Bergomot Peare 7. The Summer Bon Chretien 8. The best Warden 9. The pound Peare 10. The Windsor Peare 11. The Gratiola Peare 12. The Gilloflower Peare

Today, we enjoy the smell of quinces and it’s noted how the perfume from one fruit can fill a room.  Parkinson also remarks on this feature of the quince, but interestingly the ‘strong heady sent’ he records is considered ‘not wholsome, or long to be endured’.  However, he reveals great enthusiasm for the quince as a culinary ingredient which is eaten raw when ripe, pickled all year round, baked as a ‘dainty dish’ and preserved as ‘Marmilade, Jelly and Paste’.  He also records quinces preserved in sugar which were given as gifts:

‘.. being preserved whole in Sugar, either white or red, serve likewise, not onley as an after dish to close up the stomacke, but is placed among other Preserves by Ladies and Gentlewomen, and bestowed on their friends to entertain them, and among other sorts of Preserves at Banquets.’

At his time of writing, Parkinson records six types of quince grown in England – but the varieties of pear far exceed this.  As ever, in this period, there is an overlap between the nutritional and medical value of both quinces and pears, which Parkinson says are the only two fruits that should be eaten by people who are unwell:

‘And indeede, the Quince and the Warden are the two onely fruits are permitted to the sicke, to eate at any time.’

As well as being eaten fresh, pears were dried, baked and roasted, and the juice of ‘choke pears’ which were too bitter to eat, made into perry.

In the final pages of his book, a useful index matches medical symptoms with plant remedies, and supplies other information, such as recipes for making colour dyes and keeping garments free from moths.

There’s a link to Parkinson’s text below – a treasure trove for anyone interested in the uses of plants, and the systems of medical beliefs in 17th century England.

A Table of the Vertues and Properties of the Hearbes contained in this Booke

Further reading:

Paradisi in Sole Paradisus Terrestris, or, A garden of all sorts of pleasant flowers: which our English ayre will permitt to be noursed up: with a kitchen garden of all manner of herbes, rootes & fruites for meate or sauce used with us; and, an orchard of all sorte of fruitbearing trees and shrubbes fit for our land; together with the right orderinge, planting and preserving of them and their uses and vertues (1629) John Parkinson
– digital version from Getty Resarch Institute here

John Parkinson on Wikipedia here

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