An Earthly Paradise: Gardens in Art

Graves Gallery
- , 2017

Tickets: Free

Gardens captured in art over the centuries. Our review...

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In the introduction to An Earthly Paradise: Gardens in Art, the curator writes: “the garden represents different things to different people.” It is a statement that perfectly encapsulates this exhibition, where artists depict gardens as both private and public, domestic and dangerous, peaceful and prosperous, natural and nurtured. These oppositions manage to find common ground in An Earthly Paradise and together showcase the varied character of something that has remained familiar throughout history and across continents.

The exhibition begins with a collection of private gardens, detailing everything from Cézanne’s family estate in France to Frank Constantine’s more modest plot on Brocco Bank in Sheffield. Both of these works see the artist painting their own garden, but Charles Ginner’s An English Country House doesn’t reveal whether he is creating an homage to home or poking around someone else’s property.

Shelagh Wakely goes even further and outright reveals her nosiness in Another Person’s Garden – a work that is both dark and distorted as if she is peeping over a wall. This separation between the artist and the garden forces the viewer to also peer into gardens that are not their own, thus reminding us that even private gardens are not entirely hidden and there is always the threat of a stranger intruding.

This feeling of threat and danger is present in many of the works, not least because gardens are often the stepping-stone between the domestic security of the home and the unknown outside world. But nature itself can be mysterious and unpredictable, like the dark and brooding clearing that appears in Samuel Rayner’s Dorothy Vernon’s Walk, Haddon Hall or the shadowy lines in John Minton’s A Kent Garden.

Additionally, nature can still be powerful even when it is seemingly tamed in a constructed garden. A wonderful example of this is Ivor Abrahams’ Privacy Plots series. His collages see perfectly pruned hedges dominating suburban streets, thanks to his decision to lay bright, tactile felt over washed-out photographs. The nature depicted is certainly bold and beautiful, but it is also all-consuming and brash next to the tired, lifeless concrete.

This contrast between suburbia and the unruly natural world really comes to the fore in Trevor Stubley’s Holmfirth – Adam and Eve. An arresting painting, Holmfirth is almost split in half with the top corner committed to a detailed and careful depiction of the modern homes in the town, and the bottom half swallowed up by a howling black tree with twisting branches. Under the tree’s shadowy bough, the two ghostly figures of Adam and Eve slowly appear, harking back to the first biblical garden and the moment evil destroyed the utopia of Eden. Even the title of the work indicates that there is a gap between current civilisation and the more natural origins of the world.

However, this gap is not an impossible separation; there is a difference between Stubley’s wild tree and neat houses, but they are still side by side in the same frame. If anything, An Earthly Paradise is a celebration of humanity's historical relationship with “the garden” – whatever form that comes in. Isaac Shaw’s 19th-century sketch of the Botanical Gardens reveals Sheffield residents strolling around the park in much the same way they do today – albeit dressed in a different style. Many things change, but our enjoyment of gardens never seems to fade.

Image: Harry Frank Constantine, A Winter Garden (Brocco Bank), 1953. © The Artists Estate.

Written by Hannah Clugston; April 25, 2017

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