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Antiguan Gardening with Frank Walter: Professor Barbara Paca, PhD, OBE

Barbara Paca, Curator of Frank Walter: Artist, Gardener, Radical, shares her memories of meeting Frank Walter and discovering the Antiguan plants in his garden, as well as his affinity with gardening figures throughout history such as the Tradescants and Derek Jarman.

Studies as an art historian and landscape architect prepared me for my work on artist, planter, philosopher Frank Walter, and now I have the pleasure of serving as the Garden Museum’s guest curator for a 5 month exhibition in his honour, presenting the artist’s work for the first time in a London museum. With a list of favorite species in hand, Garden Museum Head Gardener Matt Collins has been experimenting with West Indian plants–establishing an Antiguan garden to help frame the context for the show. This effort, along with the immersive garden experience being created by designer Jeremy Herbert and filmmaker Thomas Barzilay Freund brings into focus the universe of Frank Walter–set at the time of year when all Londoners begin to crave sunshine.

Antiguan inspired greenhouse planting at the Garden Museum, photo by Matt Collins

I had the pleasure of knowing Frank Walter well. Upon our first meeting at his hillside home in 2004 I became intrigued by the artistic way that he combined familiar edible and medicinal plants with native species to create a new landscape aesthetic in the West Indies. He freely imparted his lifelong knowledge of plants, agriculture, folklore, and natural medicines to me, teaching me important lessons about what it means to garden in the Caribbean. His impact extends beyond the region, and for me has served as a kind of global guide as climate change affects all gardeners and we rethink the impact of our environments on others. Part of this new search for paradise incorporates Walter’s approach: editing, reducing, simplifying, unplugging, and finding ways to meet nature on her unrelenting terms.

Anglo Antiguan

Curiously the Frank Walter exhibition marks a return to the origins of the Garden Museum; in particular the museum’s namesakes, the Tradescants. John Jr. and John Sr. Tradescant were England’s first royal gardeners and through royal patronage were responsible for many early plant introductions including specimens from the West Indies. The Tradescants were 16th and 17th century plant hunters who established the first botanical garden in the world accessible to the public as a kind of botanical cabinet of curiosities. Formerly relegated to the elite as kunstkammers (cabinets of curiosities) within the hushed walls of Continental palaces or within the verdant confines of a vast private estate, such collections were amassed by and for the aristocracy to serve educational purposes and also as a form of amusement. The Tradescants broke the mould when they created their museum in Lambeth in the 17th century, opening their doors to women, children, and uneducated but nonetheless curious people.

Frank Walter’s paintings displayed in The Ark Gallery at the Garden Museum, which explores the life and collection of the Tradescants. Photo by Benedict Johnson

Noted as one of the Caribbean’s most intellectual and prolific artists, Frank Walter was an eccentric genius who saw himself as a product of the 17th century. Descending from slave owners and people who were enslaved, Walter had a complicated sense of his family’s past made more oppressive by his need at the time to keep certain uncomfortable truths private. Added to his confused identity was his role as Antigua’s first person of colour to be awarded the elevated title of manager–and it was his fate to find himself in charge of one of the sugar plantations owned by his white ancestors. Highly intelligent and endowed with rich imagination he merged family histories, refashioning himself occasionally as a courtier but more often as Charles II along with a host of other aristocratic figures from the 17th c. As a planter, naturalist, and gardener, he saw himself as a modern day Tradescant, envisioning a unique open-air museum of flora and fauna on his property on the lush wilderness island of Dominica, and twenty years later at his more arid retirement home on Bailey’s Hill in Antigua.

Antigua photo by Thomas Barzilay Freund
Antigua photo by Thomas Barzilay Freund

St. Francis of Antigua

Respected by his friends and family as one who needed to live in solitude in order to thrive, Frank Walter became known as St. Francis of Antigua for his ascetic lifestyle and ability to live comfortably close to the natural world. Walter’s home was his sanctuary–and it was against that undistracted backdrop that he was able to create works of art to honor Antigua and his time living in other parts of the world. When I reflect upon time spent with Frank Walter, I first think of the tall white-flowering agave overhead with flocks of iridescent hummingbirds weaving their way in and out, among the long spikes of blossoms as they gathered nectar.

The next plant that comes to mind is the native Terminalia buceras which is one of Antigua’s most stable trees, providing shade under its sturdy canopy. Frank Walter and his cousin Jules Walter admired this tree and commented on how it was the only native Antiguan tree to be featured at Kew Gardens. They used to say that the wood of the tree was harvested for swizzle sticks for stirring drinks, adding that the tree traveled to Kew from the botanical garden in St. John’s during the time of Queen Victoria.

Blighia sapida, photo by Marco Schmidt. Creative Commons
Capparis cynophallophora photo by Bob Peterson. Creative Commons
Malpighia emarginata, Creative Commons

Interspersed among Frank Walter’s canopies of the Guiacum sanctum, bay leaf, mango, sugar apple, guava, and horseradish tree grew a botanical wonderland of food, medicine, and flowers. Blighia sapida (also known as ackee), Aloe vera, Capparis cynophallophora, Malpighia emarginata (also known as Barbados cherry), Senna alata, Tecoma stans, and Pithecellobium unguis-cati nourished and were made into tinctures, while Caesalpinia pulcherrima, Cestrum nocturnam, Clereodendrum indicum, Stachytarpheta involucrate, Petrea volubilis, Hippeastrum puniceum, and Hymenocallis caribbaea provided an abundance of flowers.

Senna alata, Creative Commons
Caesalpinia pulcherrima, photo by Jim Evans. Creative Commons
Clerodendrum indicum, photo Forest & Kim Starr, Creative Commons
Petrea volubilis, photo by Dinesh Valke, Creative Commons

Up in a rich valley above his ancestral home on Rendezvous Bay (still owned by the Walter family today) were stands of the ancient Ceiba petandra trees, also known as the “Ancestor Tree” because spirits of the departed would hide among the long tall creased trunk or high up in the lofty vase-shaped canopy. These trees and other kinds of plants populated our conversations; including poetic reflections on the beauty of the avenue of Swietenia mahagoni mature specimen trees aligning the entrance to the romantic Clarence House where Walter spent time as a youth; as well as memorable descriptions of the stunning allee of bright red-flowering Delonix regia trees still aligning the entrance to his family’s former muscovado sugar plantation on the eastern side of the island. These stately trees and many other forms of plant life were the subject of conversation, particularly when his words drifted back to the agricultural feats of Frank Walter’s forebears; and over time I recognized the benefit of these conversations in keeping Walter’s mind organized as he recounted botanical names and their connection to his universe.

Hippeastrum puniceum, photo by Alejandro Bayer Tamayo. Creative Common
Hymenocallis caribaea, photo Michael Wolf, Creative Commons

Artistic Temperament and the evolving landscapes of Frank Walter and Derek Jarman

Never to be compressed by time, Frank Walter escaped nearly every convention that society attempted to shackle him with. He held austerity in high regard as it was his goal to live in harmony with the natural world. This was made more complex by the urgent desires unique to an artist who constantly experimented with colour, applying his theories to the immediate environment and to the unbound “borrowed” landscape. In this regard there are striking parallels to Derek Jarman and Dungeness. Both garden creations result from strictly bound rules about colour and aesthetics, creating much from little. For Jarman, as with Walter, his small home was the heartbeat of a larger seemingly inhospitable landscape. Jarman’s property was what Tilda Swinton referred to as the “practical toolbox” for his work as an artist as he created his own personal Eden on a shingle beach –and Walter was much the same in the arid maritime landscape of southern coastal Antigua. Colour theory played a major role in his choice of plants, and Jarman recognized the special properties of green:

“Archaic green colours time. Passing centuries are evergreen. To mauve belongs a decade. Red explodes and consumes itself. Blue is infinite. Green clothes the earth in tranquility, ebbs and flows with the season. In it is the hope of Resurrection. We feel green has more shades than any other colour, as the buds break the winter dun in the hedges.” – Derek Jarman, Pharmacopeia, A Dungeness Notebook, 1991, p. 57.

Frank Walter’s house in Antigua, photo by Thomas Barzilay Freund
Derek Jarman’s fisherman’s cottage in Dungeness, Kent. Photo by Howard Sooley

Frank Walter’s essay “The Illusion of Fine Living” outlined his belief that if artists were to reach their potential, they needed to establish special environments in which to create art. This theory was echoed in his poetry as he believed that there was much he could learn from the art of living–and he worked day and night, conducting agricultural experiments in land improving, farming, and ornamental gardening in a manner similar to Jarman. In isolation he lived in his head and was able to commit his life to the pursuit of theories–weaving together painting and gardening–and he did so without distraction in his last home up in the rustic Antiguan hills above Falmouth Harbour. In his theoretical writing, Walter describes how the artist is separated from others in the perception of nature, and the two basic categories of colour in the landscape–green for terrestrial and blue for celestial.

Frank Walter: Artist, Gardener, Radical installation view, photo by Benedict Johnson
Frank Walter: Artist, Gardener, Radical installation view, photo by Benedict Johnson

“The Artist who studied Nature had observed the mixing of celestial colours, with terrestrial colours to be the cause of the climax of the colour scheme of terrestrial nature, so expressive in the shades of green known to our earth environment. It is quite likely that nobody else but the artist shall ever have seen that object in that specific expression that attracted one’s interest, colour and all, as one stalks the changes of nature.” –  Frank Walter, unpublished essay, On Painting

One of the most tangible links between Jarman’s Dungeness and Frank Walter’s home on Bailey’s Hill is the insistence on working relentlessly following through on the thread of an idea to find its core–getting at the truth of what it means to dwell in a paradise. Stripping away the chatter, the unnecessary, engaging thought and trying to understand and define space in sync with one’s daily movements, visual gaze, and personal nostalgia. As with Derek Jarman, Frank Walter’s garden is a kind of high art–a relic from the past and at the same time forward looking. Part of their shared genius was in their stamina–and the intentionality of their work in deploying artistic principles toward finding their own private Eden.

Frank Walter: Artist, Gardener, Radical is open until 25 February 2024: book your visit

Barbara Paca will give a talk on Frank Walter’s life, art and world on Tuesday 12 December, 7pm: book tickets

Buy the catalogue


With thanks to the Walter Family. It has been a pleasure collaborating with Christopher Woodward, Head Gardener Matthew Collins, Horticultural Trainee Georgie Johnson, and the museum’s first volunteer, Philip Norman, who has served there for an astounding forty years. This project happened in tandem with designer Jeremy Herbert, videographer Thomas Barzilay Freund, lenders Sylvia and Eddie Brown of Baltimore, and the Walter family, under the generous patronage of David Zwirner Gallery, Fortes D’Aloia and Gabriel Gallery, Hugh Freund, Esq., Cockayne Grants for the Arts, a donor advised fund held at the London Community Foundation, and Tides Foundations of San Francisco.

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