The seasons

October 13, 2020

Spring is a sequence of more or less predictable events – buds swelling, shoots emerging, flowers appearing, from primroses to snowdrops and crocuses to tulips and daffodils. Meanwhile the canopy is unfolding, until the beeches cast the bluebells into shade. You can’t quite pace the autumn like this. While spring can be accelerated or delayed by a matter of days, its rhythm is driven underground. What tells the crocus to push its little nose in the air? Who can tell?

Autumn is driven by all-too-palpable forces. Leaves have lost their freshness and strength: their withered frames are vulnerable. Wind and rain tear at them, a frost starts to change their chemistry, their sugars retract into the shelter of the soil, or their woody structure of twigs and branches. The metabolism that grew their roots closes down and either sleeps or dies. They have formed their seed and sown it, fat apples, or grains almost too small to see, have been launched to start a new generation

The seasons are the theme of an exhibition (open till January 9) at the St Barbe Gallery in Lymington that is worth travelling a long way to see. Indeed all their exhibitions, and the little gallery itself, are worth visiting. There is a school, or tradition, of English painters of the 20th century that really lacks a label, but is perfectly recognisable. You could call it Romantic Realism, perhaps. It lives outdoors, obsessed with nature and the activities of country life. Some of its best artists dwelt on the hard labour of farming, jobs that have now disappeared but whose machinery is still vaguely familiar from the hulks of wagons, harvesters or threshing machines that hang around old farms. There are works here by Nash, Ravilious, Badmin, Sutherland, Leighton, Dunbar, Tunnicliffe, Tanner, Laura Knight, Grant, Cedric Morris, Reynolds, Minton, Hitchens and several more.

Clare Leighton’s, woodcuts of farming in the 1930s tell the story with an extraordinary muscular simplicity. Great artists internalize their subjects, then remake them in a kind of reverie, guided by their medium, whether chisel or pen or brush and dense oil or the transparency of watercolour. A poet waits for words to fall into place, then manoeuvres them; a composer, sounds. The artists in this exhibition have absorbed the sights of the seasons and processed then through their souls. The result is an almost spiritual record of the English year as it once was. I could sob at the sights we have lost.

Déja vu

September 30, 2020

There are worse ways of garden visiting than virtually, online. There are better, too, and the best (short of IRL) is memory – supposing, that is, you’ve been there before. Memory needs booting, though. It operates best, I find, if I fix my thoughts on a particular spot I remember clearly and walk myself round from there. It can be surprising how the details come back. “What happens if I turn left here?’ is a subconscious thought, but the subconscious can do what it’s told, turn over a page of memory and reveal the plants, the steps, the bend in the path that are stored there. Or maybe not. Then try turning right, or return your steps to where you spoke to someone, or put your money in the box.

This presupposes, of course, that you were paying attention. I admit mine switches on and off. It switches on when it recognises a plant from my own garden, but most strongly when it doesn’t.

Can anyone keep their attention at full alert all the way round? The problem with written descriptions of gardens is the danger of being too inclusive and banging on regardless. The writer doesn’t want you to miss anything. They glance from left to right, turn this way or that, enumerate the plants and feel a duty to explain the layout at the same time. What is the answer? To subdivide the garden and take one bed, or compartment, or feature at a time? The danger is losing the full wrap-around experience. Analysis, if it has a place, should come after submersion. On the second visit, as it were; not on first acquaintance.

And first acquaintance, ideally, should come as a surprise. Read too much about a garden in advance, or look at too many pictures, and the risk is of seeing it with other people’s eyes rather than your own. Of course this can apply to any of the arts, any place – indeed any experience. Should you prime yourself by hearing an expert view, or submerse yourself in all innocence?

It depends, in reality, on how much time you’ve got. Most organised garden tours, in my experience, try to pack in far too much. Three gardens in a day is not uncommon. In cases like these it is often your camera, rather than your eyes and your brain, that records the experience. Can you really look at and appreciate a garden through a camera lens? It will be frozen in two dimensions; that will be the image you take away, bereft of the scents and sounds, the chill of the wind or the warmth of the sun; a mere token, indeed, of the work of creativity and hard work that you came to see.

You can’t listen to a symphony or an opera in the few moments you have to spare. It dictates its pace. A well-designed garden has its allegros and andantes, its rallentandos and even fortissimos too. Like all worthwhile experiences appreciating a garden takes time.

Not to like

September 16, 2020

‘What’s not to like?’ is an expression that makes me cringe. It usually comes as a smug conclusion to a list of virtues or benefits. I found it passing through my brain this morning, though, taking a before-breakfast walk through Holland Park, glowing, if not perspiring, in a temperature in the high 20s. The sun shafted through the tall woodland trees making shade hard to find. What was not to like was the memory of the programme the previous night when David Attenborough listed the existential threats to the natural world. Of course we know them all in theory. It was his illustrations that made them scary, and scarily urgent.

The most shocking to me was the plunder of the oceans, with fish being ‘harvested’ in unimaginable quantities, like gravel from a gravel pit, whales wiped out, the ocean floor bulldozed bare. The squabbling over ‘our’ fish resources, not based on how to sustain and multiply them but on who gets the biggest share, seemed worse than obtuse. Indeed, obscene.

And the previous evening a friend in California told me that the night-time temperature in St Helena had not fallen below 104 degrees. ‘What did you do?” I asked. ‘We stood in the shower wrapped in a towel.’ Will there always be enough water? There is a lot not to like.

A boring story

September 15, 2020

I vividly remember my brother boring for water in the Maremma when he started to garden on the steep slopes of Scansano. He had gone to Tuscany to paint, but soon started to plant. The local supply, it quickly became evident, was simply not up to his needs. Then a friend visited with a hazel rod. It twitched. ‘There’s water down there all right’, he said. ‘A long way down. But I reckon it’s an underground stream.’

So Brian consulted a borehole engineer, swallowed hard when he saw the estimate, and went ahead. They calculated 60 metres. We were waiting for them that morning: a lorry loaded with 2-metre lengths of the drills (at so much per length). Their machine bored all morning, bringing up nothing but pale dust, the colour of the local roads. 50 metres. 60 – still pale dust. The family got into a huddle: how many more lengths (at so much per length) should we risk? Another two metres, more dust. Two more: was the dust just ever so slightly darker in colour? Two more and it turned brown, then suddenly Eureka! The hole was gurgling dirty brown water that quickly cleared to crystal. The garden water problem was solved. My brother only allowed himself a green lawn the size of, say, half a tennis court. The water was not squandered, it just made the establishment of any new plant less of a gamble.

The neighbours, though, heard the news and soon plotted the course of the underground stream. First one, then another, bored down into it. The water supply dwindled with each new borehole until the pioneer was left with not much more than a dribble.

And the relevance of this story? Our son-in-law in the New Forest is investigating boreholes. The water garden we are making has spent the summer without the help of rain. The farmer on the land that used to top up the natural springs has dug new drains taking the water away in a different direction. And the Isle of Wight malevolently steers the rainclouds away to the south. A bore? It certainly is.

It’s a fake

August 27, 2020

I’m nervous of experts; their say-so can easily backfire on you. There is the kindly squash: Roy Lancaster, inspecting the leaf of what I thought was a rare Mexican oak: ‘I’m sorry, Hugh, but I’m afraid it’s a hybrid’. And there’s the expensive put-down, the speciality of the fine art business. A plant is merely a plant, but with art huge sums can ride on questions of authenticity. It matters millions of pounds whether it was Titian’s brush or his assistant’s (it could even have been the same brush, borrowed) that laid on that stroke of paint. It can look pretty venal, too, when the decision can only be made by one expert, living in Switzerland and charging fat sums for an opinion.

How much does authenticity matter? Would no one go the British Museum if the Elgin marbles or the Benin bronzes were perfect replicas? Is there a palpable aura about a pharaoh’s granite head that no reproduction could ever evoke? We must admit that fakes can work – until they are rumbled. Personally I would be happy to hang a fine reproduction of, say, a Stubbs (I’d love a Stubbs), the real thing being far out of reach. In fact we do have a watercolour copy of Claude’s Hagar and the Angel, done when it was given to the National Gallery in 1828 by Sir George Beaumont. Beaumont was so loath to part with his Claude that he travelled with it as his ‘carriage painting’ (it is surprisingly small) when he went to his house in Leicestershire or to the Lakes to see Wordsworth. Constable copied it, too, to use on his lecture tour to Worcester – indeed I believe ours is Constable’s own copy. But no expert will go out on that limb.

Stanley Holloway nailed it, when his hero Sam Small, at the Tower of London, says ‘It’s ‘ad a new ‘andle, and perhaps a new ‘ead, but it’s still the original axe’.

Ombra mai fu

August 11, 2020

It was not far off a hundred old-style degrees yesterday, and not a breath of wind. How did our ancestors in the 18th century, periwigged or corseted, survive the summer? Handel left some clues in two of his operas, in two of his most successful and memorable arias. Ombra mai fu, his ‘largo’ in Serse, of 1738, is King Xerxes’ love song to a plane tree and its ‘soave’ shade, ‘Where’er you walk’ (Semele, 1743) is Jupiter’s promise to his mistress, Semele (the mother of Baccus) that her life with him will be a (shady) paradise; ‘Cool gales shall fan the shade’. Our garden is permanently shady, but you need a breeze as well; close and airless shade is no pleasure.

For months already this summer I have been crossing to (even planning my walks for) the shady side of London streets: east in the morning, west in the afternoon, or the south side of east-west streets. Avoid north-south streets around noon.

Am I unusual in shunning the sun? I shudder when I see photos of crowds fully exposed on shadeless beaches. Summer sun without a shady refuge is my idea of hell. I suspect that plants feel the same. Why do they flower in sunshine, and vegetate in shade? Shade gives them the opportunity to grow, to breathe freely, open their stomata and pump carbon dioxide, using the carbon to multiply their cells and expand. Sun, I imagine, constrains them, makes then hoard their juices, induces the sense of mortality and the urge to reproduce; hence make flowers, mate and fruit.

This is no way to think of a plant, I’m often told. They don’t have feelings, sensations or urges; let alone a concept of the future and the need to provide for future generations. I’m not so sure. They can’t book holidays in a climate that suits them better. Nor, while this poxy virus is among us, can we.

Social distancing

July 29, 2020

I came across a sentence the other day in a pre-Victorian memoir that made me wonder who exactly did all the work in the huge gardens of the day. Brownism, of course, greatly reduced the detailed gardening of parterres and topiary. Sheep did a lot of mowing. We have seen photos of garden teams fifty-strong, the men all wearing hats, waistcoats and watchchains, the boys caps (the weeder women not even in shot). But here is Prince Puckler-Muskau, in a house-party at Lord Darnley’s Cobham Hall in July 1828.

‘Today I diligently helped clear a few new vistas through the brush, to which everyone lent a hand.’ This is something Jane Austen left out: the gentlemen in their shirt sleeves, the ladies in… what, I wonder? Pinafores? And where did the sons of toil fit in? Did they set to, competing to impress with their brawny bending, or watch from the wings, concealing their giggles, or pitch the branches on a bonfire? Did the cider-flagon go round the party, ending with a shanty and a jig, or did they practise social distancing?

The voice of an old friend

July 28, 2020

I am looking for a recipe in Elizabeth David and reading her old magazine articles, the voice of an old friend, when I stumble on one of her descriptions of an August holiday. ‘I have a nostalgie de la pluie’, she writes. North Cornwall and its leafy lanes dripping, dripping, to walk in a dressing gown and gumboots through squelching grass to the stream to fetch water for our breakfast coffee…’ She suffers August rain in the west coast of Scotland, ‘drumming on the corrugated iron roof’ and on Tory Island, ‘on what the Irish describe as a nice soft day, the Scots as a bit mixed, and I as a hurricane…’ Next came ‘sodden Surrey woods’ – at least a change from a Celtic soaking.

I have a nostalgie de la pluie, too, and seek assurance in the statistics that say August is indeed one of our wettest months. Walking on grass worn, grey and brown, patchy and without a fresh leaf, ankle-twisting, I wonder how many wet days it needs to bring life back. In the uncut meadow the grass was sere but soft, brushing your knees, dotted with purple knapweed and yellow rattle. The stream was clogged with dead leaves, the earth cracking. Roll on August; wet my face and hands.

We didn’t have to wait for the calendar. We went to the seaside, and the children sailed to Cornwall. Down it came, the wind rose, they found a sheltered anchorage and I opened the French windows and listened, and watched, and saw leaves shining, and tipping their little brimfuls onto the leaf below till the branch shook.

What weight does rain add to a big oak with half a million leaves? A branch reaching forty feet horizontally from the trunk must have to support several hundredweight of water. Why doesn’t it split from the trunk? An ingenious American woodsman spent his life carving up trees to find the answer. The growth rings of the trunk and a branch springing from it alternate and overlap, splicing the two together in union almost impossible to break.

In a day or two the tawny hide of Kensington Gardens will be overlaid with tender green. Already oaks have shot out pinkish and buff Lammas shoots, their instant reaction to a deep drink in mid-Summer. My own Lammas shoots, meanwhile, spur me to celebrate this liberating moment.

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