Jun 21 2017
Curator of Visual Art, Liz Waring, on bringing together the latest exhibition at the Graves Gallery celebrating the art of the garden.
An Earthly Paradise: Gardens in Art marks the return of the wonderful painting Zacharias and Elizabeth by Stanley Spencer to Sheffield. This painting is jointly owned by Museums Sheffield and the Tate Gallery, and having spent some time in London, it is very exciting to welcome it back to South Yorkshire.
We therefore wanted to develop a suitable exhibition in which to highlight this work, and as this biblical story is set in a garden, the perfect opportunity for a beautiful summer show was born.
Gardens have featured in art for centuries; even as far back as around 3000BC sculptural reliefs and frescos from Egypt have been found to show a variety of gardens from the palace to the domestic home, while Ancient Greece had many literary descriptions of gardens and considered them places of philosophical contemplation.
Gardening is the most popular and widespread leisure activity in Britain, so it’s not surprising that images of gardens are so appealing to both artists and art lovers. The tension of taming nature which can never quite be contained is of great interest to artists and gardeners alike, and makes the garden a place of endless creativity.
It was such a pleasure looking through Sheffield’s art collection in the search for paintings of gardens. In fact, it was a surprise to see just how many there were that related to the subject! It was therefore necessary to group the works into broad themes to ensure that the exhibition made sense; the domestic environment, grand public spaces, the production of food, and finally, the metaphorical and religious setting.
Domestic gardens are often seen as a haven from the wider world, especially in this day and age where people in towns and cities are increasingly distanced from nature. Many of the works in this section show the artist’s own gardens, from Bonnard’s garden at his home in Le Cannet, to Rodziewicz’s garden at 37 Wolstenholme Road in Sheffield’s Nether Edge.
In the public spaces section, many of the works feature gardens that were originally private but have since been opened up to the public. This was often due to democratic governments transforming the gardens of royal or aristocratic residencies into public spaces for recreation, such as the Luxembourg Gardens, Paris, once in the ownership of Marie de Medici, or the gardens of the Villa Borghese, Rome, which originally belonged to a cardinal’s palace. However, some were in fact created for the benefit of the people, such as the Botanical Gardens in Sheffield, which was established to “promote both healthy recreation and self-education in Sheffield”.
I was quite surprised to find that some of the paintings, such as those that feature in the food production section, had underlying social or political aspects. The Victorian cottage garden was not only seen to provide sustenance, but also seen to strengthen the moral fabric of the family. Similarly, Stott’s A French Kitchen Garden alludes to the republican ideals of the French artists he was working alongside, who saw “working in common of the soil” as a means to the perfect society.
Gardens are often seen as a symbol of human transience and many gardens throughout history have been decorated with objects relating to this, such as sundials, funerary urns and fragments of sculpture. The section on imaginary gardens features works that look at this aspect of garden symbolism, as well as other familiar garden metaphors, such as femininity in the form of Flora the Goddess of Spring.
Finally, the Western Christian tradition has always used the image of the garden as a place of sanctuary from evil, a boundary between the cultured and the wild. In this section of the exhibition we see the Garden of Eden portrayed by a number of different artists, including Albrecht Durer. It is here we also find the star of the show, the feted Zacharias and Elizabeth. While powerfully symbolic, the scene depicted is actually is set in the garden of St George's Lodge, an empty house owned by a wealthy neighbour of the Spencers in the village of Cookham.
An Earthly Paradise: Gardens in Art continue at the Graves Gallery until 12 August 2017 – entry to the exhibition is free.
Image: Top: Paul Cezanne, Bassin du Jas de Bouffan, France, about 1874. Image © Museums Sheffield
Image: Middle Right: Stanley Spencer, Zacharias and Elizabeth, 1913-14. © Estate of Sir Stanley Spencer Bridgeman Images
Image: Bottom Left: Edward Stott ARA, A French Garden Kitchen, `1883. Image © Museums Sheffield