Tuesday, May 28, 2019

The Challenges of Garden Painters

Sitting in a garden painting a watercolor sounds like a pretty easy life, doesn't it?

One might think so, but two artists, Ernest Arthur Rowe (1863-1922) and George S. Elgood (1851-1943), show the kind of challenges these garden specialists faced.

Ernest Arthur Rowe, Holme Lacy, Herefordshire, 1902
Both of them traveled around Britain painting detailed watercolor portraits of estate gardens for rich clients.

Ernest Arthur Rowe - Revesby Abbey, Lincolnshire, The Fountain 1898
Ernest Arthur Rowe often had to contend with bad weather. In 1892 in Suffolk, he "worked in the garden under an umbrella in the morning and for an hour in the afternoon, then gave it up as a bad job. Rained all day." 

Later he said in his journal "a 24 x 20 drawing [was] blown into a fishpond."

Ernest Arthur Rowe - The Terrace, Gwydyr
He also faced financial challenges, even though he was one of the leading garden painters of his day. When he started out, he had a hard time getting commissions, so he would arrange permission from the head gardener to do a rendering, and then sweet-talk the owner into buying it.

In 1890 he only made £30. He gradually improved his fortunes enough to marry and build a house.

Ernest Arthur Rowe, Rose Garden
All his life he suffered from poor health. The First World War devastated the world that supported his profession, but he was able to revive his career a bit before his death in 1922. After that, for 50 years, he was virtually forgotten.

George Elgood
George S. Elgood was probably the best known garden painter and a gardener himself. He illustrated books by the renowned designer Gertrude Jekyll, and he was inspired by the gardens of Italy.

His paintings achieve a remarkable botanical truthfulness without sacrificing the atmospheric quality and the tonal unity of the distant areas.
George Elgood, Italian Garden
According to Christopher Wood, "as he grew older, Elgood grew increasingly crotchety, eccentric, and reclusive." His notes reveal "his great contempt for garden designers" and his disrespect for others in his profession. Apparently Elgood and Rowe didn't know each other and never spoke.

Elgood had a particular distaste for architects who designed gardens, and he wrote: "the architect who designed this porch ought to be whipped."
George Elgood
"In his own house," Wood continues, "Elgood resolutely eschewed all modern conveniences, refusing to install heating, electric light or even running water. He died a cantankerous, bearded old recluse, in 1943 at age 92, by which time the golden age of English gardens which he had so lovingly depicted, had long since passed away."
The quotes are from the art book Painted Gardens: English Watercolours, 1850-1914 by Christopher Wood


scottT said...

Elgood's almost pointillist technique is fascinating. I was looking at some details of his work and there appears to be few large lay ins. The surface is more like a skein or intricate web of small blots and dabs. I'm sort of interested this sort of surface approach using a small brush, connecting small areas of detail with larger ones into masses. But unless it is organized, it could lead to a confusing and busy mess.

Jim Douglas said...

I always struggle with the apparent fact that grand gardens like these only seem to exist in a society with a robust aristocracy, monarchy, or autocracy. I would like to think beauty does not require wealth, but when it comes to this sort of beauty, I just can't convince myself that's true. Is there a way to create the beauty of Versailles' gardens without suffering the tyrannical rule of a Louis XIV? Is the proverbial juice worth the squeeze??

Even Central Park, America's first major landscaped public park, employed nearly 700 workers a month after work began in late August 1857. According to Wikipedia, "Though park supporters claimed that Central Park would only cost $1.7 million, the total cost of the land ended up being $7.39 million, more than the price that the United States paid for Alaska a few years afterward." Beauty ain't cheap!!

James Gurney said...

Jim, thanks, that's interesting about Central Park. You're right that only a rich and established aristocracy would allow for those big estate gardens. They required a whole full time garden staff run by a powerful head gardener. After WWI a lot of those gardens were grassed over. Even though in the day artists were relatively low on the totem pole, it's the paintings that often provide the only accurate memory of what the gardens once looked like.

Scott, I have a previous post on Elgood's Technique here: http://gurneyjourney.blogspot.com/2010/08/elgoods-secrets.html

scottT said...

Thanks, James. Nice little first hand account!