Home » Catalogue Extract | Public & Private: Finding the Modern British Garden

Catalogue Extract | Public & Private: Finding the Modern British Garden

‘Public and private worlds are inseparably connected’
- Virginia Woolf, Three Guineas, 1938

By George Richards, Liss Llewellyn Gallery Manager

This exhibition examines the ways in which Modern British artists of the interwar period engaged with private and public spaces. The show begins by exploring the private realms of artists, as many retreated to planting and painting their own gardens in the wake of the First World War. But while some withdrew, other artists sought pleasure and escapism, and amidst the rise of new technologies and popular entertainment, public gardens became arenas for a modern experience which they strove to capture. Moreover, this exhibition explores the blurring of boundaries between private and public spaces, as the car and other modes of transport opened up areas of the countryside beyond the orbit of the railways. And then there were the houses and gardens of estates such as Garsington Manor – brought into the public eye by artists who attended the gatherings of the great chatelaine and salonnière, Lady Ottoline Morrell. So perhaps these worlds of private and public were not mutually exclusive, after all.

Gilbert Spencer (1892-1979), Trees at Garsington, c. 1925, image courtesy of Liss Llewellyn

A traditional approach to art-making came about as a consequence of the Great War. This phenomenon is often described as a ‘return to order’ (from the French retour à l’ordre), as many British artists either tempered or wholly discarded their avant-garde leanings in favour of a more conservative manner, both in terms of style and subject. It was against this backdrop that a number of artists in this exhibition retreated to their
gardens – their own personal havens – and this yearning for safe, enclosed and private spaces is all too easy to fathom after a period of such seismic trauma. Indeed, many of the gardens that were planted in the ensuing years would provide the wellspring and inspiration for these artists throughout their lives, with some seldom working anywhere else.

Evelyn Dunbar (1906-1960), Conservatory at the Cedars, image courtesy of Liss Llewellyn

Charles Mahoney’s daughter recalls that to enter his garden at Oak Cottage, in the village of Wrotham, was to enter one of his pictures, and it ‘provided him with more subject matter than he could ever use’. The same could be said for Douglas Percy Bliss’ Hillside Cottage in Windley, Derbyshire – which became the artist’s very own ‘Valley of Vision’ – or for The Cedars, the Dunbar family home in Strood, Rochester, from 1924-1946. As viewers, we are made privy to these special worlds, and titularly summoned in the case of Evelyn Dunbar’s Invitation to the Garden. And how could one refuse as we are ushered through the open gate to wander freely among the lush spaces within, guided by the artist’s lavish and energetic brushwork ? Other works in this section are more immersive still, and show artists painting en plein air within their gardens. This can be seen in the portrait of Mary Adshead in her garden on Haverstock Hill, as well as the self-portrait of Douglas Stannus Gray in his plot on the King’s Avenue, Clapham. both perfectly in tune with the environments that they had created.

John Moody (1906-1993), Brunswick Square, c.1940. Image courtesy of Liss Llewellyn

London views feature prominently in the exhibition’s next section, ‘Urban Spaces’. With the popularity of flâneuse novels such as Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway (first published in 1925) – the vogue for ‘street haunting’, as Woolf referred to it, could be said to have found its pictorial form during this period, as works in this exhibition seem to reveal a number of artists’ delight in painting quirky facades, secret courtyards, unexpected green spaces and ordered, historic squares. Writers like Woolf gave rise to the British Flâneur, and issued a rallying cry for artists to make visible to all the ‘scattered beauty’ which could be found not only in flowers, gardens, fields and woods, but in ‘every barrow of Oxford Street’. These authors championed a new way of seeing and valuing urban and suburban space, and many artists appear to have answered this call, creating a slew of marvellous, somewhat off-kilter metropolitan scenes. There is the slice of Brunswick Square in John Moody’s painting, glimpsed from the first-floor balcony (Virginia Woolf herself lived at 38 Brunswick Square from 1911-1912); the crocodile of schoolgirls who snake their way past the brick wall and the frame of a football goal in Tirzah Garwood’s etching; or the Regency House and Chinese pagoda-style balcony spied by Gilbert Spencer in Downshire Hill, Hampstead.

The Joy Wheel, English School. Image courtesy of Liss Llewellyn

This period also saw a number of artists engage with pleasure parks and funfairs amidst a growing interest for recreation. This reflected a greater provision for paid holidays (cemented by the Holidays with Pay Act of 1938), and images of entertainment in parks featured more heavily within the Modern British canon. From fireworks and fairgrounds, to picnics and parties, these images captured a fresh, modern experience, while established genres such as the Fête champêtre were given a thoroughly contemporary twist. On the surface, these images feel far removed from the more private, introspective scenes of the first chapter. But perhaps there is a thread which connects them, for just as some spent the interbellum years seeking refuge and reconstruction in their own gardens, others tried to reintegrate within the public sphere, though not always with success.

The Broad Walk, Regents Park, Stephen Bone. Image courtesy of Liss Llewellyn

The character of Septimus Warren Smith in Mrs Dalloway was one of the first in literature to show the impact of shell-shock long after combat had ceased, and he is plagued by numbness and hallucinations as he sits upon a bench on the Broad Walk, Regent’s Park – here painted by Stephen Bone. Such detachment must have felt all the more marked at funfairs – often thrown on behalf of wounded soldiers – and in a letter to Zoe Akins, D.H. Lawrence observed how ‘queer’ and odd the contrast of private torment and public enjoyment was at a Hampstead Heath fair in 1915. This incongruity was the subject for one of Modern British Art’s most famous images, Mark Gertler’s Merry-go-Round, 1916 (Tate Gallery Collection), and in Gertler’s painting, the fairground became a metaphor for the relentless military machine. Lawrence recognised in this work the ‘soul-lacerating despair’ on the faces of the uniformed figures, spinning around the carousel, and a similar tone of disquiet might be observed in The Joy Wheel. It was painted by an unknown English artist, in the heightened colours and free brushstrokes of the Camden Town Group, but there is a sense of sobriety in the audience (which counts soldiers among its members), and melancholy in the bowed heads of the performers.

Read the full essay in the Private & Public: Finding the Modern British Garden exhibition catalogue: buy the catalogue

Image: Detail from Evelyn Dunbar (1906-1960), Invitation to the Garden, c. 1938, image courtesy of Liss Llewellyn