Wednesday 8 July 2009

Book Review: Garden Painters

Title: Garden Painters: 21 Contemporary Artists
Author: (Publisher): Ariel Luke (A&C Black London)
Hardback 128 pages; 120 Illustrations in full colour
ISBN 9780713682069
Synopsis: A survey of 21 contemporary painters who specialise in painting gardens. The artists come from the United Kingdom as well as Europe and the United States. They work in a wide range of media including watercolour, acrylics, oils and tempera.
Who should buy this?:
  • artists interested in painting gardens - to appreciate the wide range of ways this can be tackled
  • botanical artists wanting to extend their range of work
  • people who like paintings of gardens!
Who should not buy this?
  • painters who don't like painting foliage!
  • great range of artists demonstrating different styles and approaches to painting gardens
  • detailed profile of each artist with multiple images
Think Again?
  • lacks an overall context for the genre of garden painting
  • reservations about some of the colour reproduction of work by some artists
  • lacks details for how to contact/commission each artist
Summary: It's actually a book about some dedicated garden painters and some painters who happen to have painted gardens at some point in the past. The distinction is not as clear in the book as it is when you start looking for their work on the Internet. It makes a useful contribution to understanding the genre of garden painting but leans towards being a personal perspective rather than an authoritative overview.

Painting gardens is once more becoming an important art genre. The practice of painting gardens definitely went out of vogue at one point - indeed it was probably associated with 'things past'. Also painting gardens has also been by some as an activity which engages the interest of amateurs rather than serious professionals.
However the increasing interest in gardens within the UK (do we need to thank Garden Force and Alan Titchmarsh I wonder?) means that painting gardens is very much back in fashion again. Which pleases me as I love drawing gardens! (You can see my gardens on my website as both drawings of gardens in the UK and overseas and sketches of English gardens). It also looks like it never went out of fashion with those with large houses and equally large gardens judging by some of the commissined work executed by some of the garden painters.
It'll come as no surprise that I was very pleased to see the publication of Garden Painters: 21 Contemporary Artists. I hoped it would give me some insight into how other people approach the subject matter and it certainly did that.
The book highlights:
  • artists working with diverse media
  • artists with different techniques for painting gardens
  • a profile of each artist with images and a commentary
For each artist, there is a brief biographical thumbnail sketch, reproductions of a variety of their work, and comments from the artists on their painting styles and working practices. The result is a intriguing look at what is for some a fascinating subject. The artists reviewed have a variety of backgrounds and work in different ways, for example some work mainly to commission.

The artists covered are:
  • Ivor Abrahams RA (b. 1935) - this is the link to his Garden Suites, Garden Emblems and Privacy plots - now in the ownership of the Tate
  • Graham Bannister (b. 1954) - although the artist has obviously painted gardens, images on the Internet suggest this isn't his primary subject matter (update January 2012 - link is now to the page about garden paintings on his website)
  • Jennifer Bartlett (b. 1941) - She abstracts from reality. I liked the way she has used many different mediums when drawing the garden. (Note: Revelations in a Dank Garden is an interesting article by Robert Hughes of her experience of drawing the garden which is featured in the book)
  • Robert Bates (b. 1943) - a watercolourist whose work tends towards miniature dimensions. Some of the images in the book are bigger than the originals.
  • Adrian Berg RA (b. 1929) - the slideshow of his work on his website features garden paintings from image 15 onwards. His panoramic watercolours relating to Kew Gardens, the Alhambra in Grenada and the Alcazar in Seville work is created from watercolour pencil and crayon.
  • June Berry RWS - this link to a recent exhibition of June Berry's paintings (in oil and watercolour) at the Alresford Gallery demonstrates what a delightful figurative painter she is and how wonderfully she handles both light and colour. The colour reproduction in the book either does not do justice to her work or the selection has unfortunately not included any of her more luminous works which can remind one of Bonnard.
  • Michael Dillon (b. 1957) - He is an unusual garden painter since he paints murals and trompe l'eoil. It's always nice to be reminded of the different ways of painting and he certainly seems to be accomplished. It was also fascinating to read about the approach he used to execute commission for clients all over the world.
  • John Doyle MBE PPRWS - This Past President of the Royal Watercolour Society paints traditional watercolours on paper. The views often involve gardens but he's not a specialist in this area.
  • Annabel Gault (b. 1952) - the Internet suggest she produces some very strong paintings on paper however the impression of the colour of her works gained from the Internet is unfortunately not repeated in the book which makes her work look very muted. It made me wonder about the quality of the digital images used and whether they had been colour corrected to the originals. I found myself itching to tweak the colour profile!
  • Angela Gladwell (b. 1952) - this is an artist with a strong affinity with natural history. Although she produces some splendid paintings, neither the book nor her website persuaded me that she is a garden painter.
  • Jeffrey Hessing (b.1952) - I'm not sure I'd call Hessing a garden painter so much as a painter who has painted gardens in the past. He has adistintive style.
  • Francois Houtin (b. 1950) - Initially trained as a landscape architect, he participated in the restoration of The Tuileries. Now uses his botanical knowledge to create Utopian and highly detailed gardens in pen and chinese ink and as etchings
  • David Inshaw (b 1943) - he was an early member of the Brotherhood of Ruralists. He now has work in the Tate Collection
  • Ariel Luke - the author and an artist with a very distinctive style. She has worked on garden paintings snice 1884, mainly on commission.
  • Natasha Morland - her website has galleries of park life and trees
  • Jonathan Myles-Lea (b. 1969) - paints house and garden portraits with a different perspective. His topographical painting of the The Laskett, created by Sir Roy Strong and his wife features cartouches - scenes of the garden in different seasons
  • John Pearce (b. 1942) - prefers the wilderness of private gardens
  • Ramiro Fernandez Saus (b. 1961) - a Catalan artist
  • John Shelley (b.1938) - he paints two to three pictures a year and has one picture in the Tate
  • Dick Smyly (b. 1972) - He's an artist who paints grand country houses in Britain and abroad, which , of course, tend to come with very large gardens!
  • Jonathan Warrender - this artist does not work exclusively on gardens but does have a major talent for being able to create very large paintings of gardens from a birds eye view. He's devised a way of working which involves mapping out his subject and making studies prior to executing the work. I gather from the book that at times the waiting list for commissioned work can stretch to three years! Take a look at his website to find out why his work is so popular.
I've found searching for the links that I've now got a much better sense of the scale which people work in. Something I feel which the book could have made more of since the nature of garden painting is such that it can vary from the very large to the very small. The artists are ordered in alphabetical order whereas grouping them according to their different approaches (architectural; fantasy etc) or the media they typically work in might possibly have offered an additional insight into their work.

I've got some reservations about the colour reproduction of some of the images in the book which I don't think do all the artists concerned justice.

Personally, I would have liked to have seen more coverage of the history of garden painting in order to provide a a guide and framework to the different approaches adopted today. Instead we have a very brief skip through the history of garden painting and a mention of a few names. It was interesting - but it cried out for more depth. Indeed this brief two page review is limited to UK artists only whereas there has been something of a traditon of painting gardens in Europe which has involved some very notable artists. The artists chosen for the book are not limited to UK artists - but I'm unclear how representative they are of garden painters generally.

Another useful addition might have been details of how best to contact each artist. As some of the artists' careers have themselves demonstrated, coverage in print can provide an exposure which greatly enhances the amount of commission work they receive. It's a pity that this wasn't a benefit which was offered to these artists in this book in terms of details of how to contact them. (On the other hand I was rather surprised by how many of these artists - compared to usual - did not have their own websites. Maybe they rely more on 'word of mouth' to generate their income?)

I think my main reservation about this book is that some of the painters are simply not garden painters. They're artists who have on occasion painted gardens. In that sense they're like very many other painters who could have been included in this book in relation to their distinctive painting style or an interest in gardens during their painting career. As such I'd characterise the book as very much a personal view rather than any sort of authoritative index of contemporary garden painters. If the book had been divided into dedicated garden painters - and Luke is one - and painters who've used interesting styles or approaches to portraying gardens I wouldn't be quibbling. However when a book is called Garden painters and the subject is about the genre I expect to find it chock full of dedicated painters of gardens - hence the quibble.

Despite my reservations, I have enjoyed very much looking at the images in this book and reading it. I've also enjoyed finding all the links and looking at relevant websites. I think my conclusion is that the book provides a very useful addition to the library of books about garden painting - but leaves scope for improvement and another book.

Link: For those interested in garden painting see my information site Gardens in Art - Resources for Artists


Robyn Sinclair said...

Judging by the amount of time and pleasure this post has given me, Katherine, I suspect it is more rewarding than the book. Thank you.

graham said...

If you would like to see more of my Garden paintings you can go to
I painted Gardens for 15 years out of 35 years as a painter.
Graham Bannister

Making A Mark said...

Graham - I had already linked to a website of your work in the main body of the post - however I see the link is now defunct.

I'll change it for this one which seems to be your page for garden paintings

June Berry said...

I have only just seen this review although it is now nearly three years old . Thank you Katherine for your very nice remarks about my work and for linking to my exhibition. Much appreciated. I too was very disappointed with the reproductions. I have a new website if you would like to see some better ones!

Making A Mark said...

Thank you June - I love your paintings and bought a small one in the sale of small paintings at the Bankside - the one where nobody is supposed to know who they were buying. I knew exactly whose painting I was buying! :)

graham said...

Katherine I have moved the garden paintings to my blog as the webpage crashed for a few days.

I shall be posting more images when I have the time.
Many thanks Graham

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