Review: The Enchanted Garden, Laing Art Gallery

Published 31 August 2018

Skye Sherwin looks at an exhibition charting the significance of the garden in British art over a century.

In capturing the public parks and private retreats of a gardening mad bourgeoisie, the French Impressionists have cast a long, leafy shadow over depictions of gardens in the 19th century. In shifting the focus to artists responding to this rising passion of the equally green-fingered English, what the Laing Gallery has come up with in its exhibition charting the garden in British art from 1850 to 1950 is fascinating.

This thematic exhibition, as its title suggests, presents the garden as a stage for the extraordinary. This includes, forcefully, allegories of erotic fantasy, notably in paintings by the Victorian Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, which push the strictures of their age. Alongside their more familiar winsome damsels, there’s Simeon Solomon’s lesbian clinch, for instance, or Edward Burne-Jones’ writhing naked knights, ensnared by briars.

It also casts fresh light on the era’s most apparently docile images, such as Beatrix Potter’s rodent rustics or Helen Allingham’s kitsch cottage scenes. The hugely popular wild gardens of yore, which these artists indulged, were in fact an aspirational myth: extremely challenging to maintain, except for those wealthy enough to have the staff to do so.

Be it the sexual-cum-religious ecstasy experienced by Stanley Spencer’s The Dustman (1934), in a crowded Cookham front plot, or Bloomsbury Group member Duncan Grant’s all-male bathing scene, the gardens here are always landscapes of the mind.

Shown alongside an unusual Monet Water-Lilies painting (Water-Lilies, Setting Sun, c1907) in heightened purples, even the works directly influenced by the Impressionists feel unreal, with their colours and heat turned up high. From vegetable plots to fairy bowers, this show digs deep in rich soil.

The Enchanted Garden is £10 with National Art Pass, until 7 October, Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle.

This review was originally published in the autumn 2018 issue of Art Quarterly, the magazine of Art Fund.

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