Home » News » Kate Friend: Portraits, As Chosen By…

Kate Friend: Portraits, As Chosen By…

‘Portraits, As Chosen By…’ is a new publication presenting all 41 works from Kate Friend’s photographic series from the same title, many of which were previously exhibited at the Garden Museum. Lavishly illustrated throughout and including behind-the-scenes images taken by Friend throughout her process, the book features an introduction by writer Olivia Laing and an in-depth essay by Garden Museum Director, Christopher Woodward.

To celebrate the publication, we are delighted to share Olivia Laing’s introduction exclusively for our newsletter subscribers:

Lily, Lily, Sanguisorba, Rose
Olivia Laing

The entry in my garden diary for 6 May 2022 describes pruning a box spiral and planting Passiflora ‘Anastasia’. There were bearded irises flowering under the fig, some pale yellow and one a wonderful smoky blue. ‘Oh, and Kate Friend here’, I added at the end, ‘photographing tree peony and banksia rose in a studio she set up in the greenhouse.’ She’d promised in an email that she was low-maintenance, used to pottering about by herself, and so it proved.

Together we cut a fragile yolky flower from the peony and several sprays of the Rosa banksiae ‘Lutea’, which covers a high wall, tumbling over itself in an exuberant yellow wave. I gave Kate an old bottle of Kikkoman soy sauce as a vase (others offered milk bottles, beer bottles, medicine bottles and bottles of Campari Soda) and went back to my planting. Later, I found her in the greenhouse. She’d built a temporary studio on the potting bench, usually home to rows of pelargoniums, and was working calmly, shooting the flowers.

Behind the scenes at Olivia Laing’s garden (c) Kate Friend
Olivia Laing, Rosa banksiae ‘Lutea’ (c) Kate Friend

She said that each photograph absorbed something of the atmosphere of where it was shot, describing previous trips to Maggi Hambling, who offered up a cactus so enormous it couldn’t possibly fit in the frame, and to Penny Rimbaud, whose wild winter garden was filled with snowdrops. In this way her photographs became portraits of the people who had chosen them, as well as artful, elegant representations of the flowers themselves.

I’d picked what looked good that day and hadn’t regarded my choices as a secret mirror of my personality, but now that I look at the other images I can’t help but read them as stealthy snapshots that convey a coded message about the person who grew or picked the plants, their aesthetic and sensibility. When I look at the portraits here, I like imagining the gardens they have come from as well as the people who selected them, circling their borders thoughtfully on a February or August day.

Piet Oudolf, Meconopsis cambrica (c) Kate Friend

The weird alien form of Cosey Fanni Tutti’s Euphorbia characias ‘Black Pearl’, with its spray of lime-green flowers, each with a startling black eye, betokens a different kind of sensibility from Molly Goddard’s romantic peonies, pink heads still clenched. In a day or two they will open up, exposing a crown of golden stamens and shedding lazy petals on the kitchen table. Likewise, John Pawson’s casual garden rose, with its crooked stem, is different from the blowsy glamour of that chosen by Anjelica Huston, somehow cajoled from the desert that is Los Angeles. The same goes for the very different hydrangeas picked by Claudia Schiffer and Margaret Howell, one plush and opulent, the other winterised and skeletal, battered into translucency by Suffolk winds.

Behind the scenes in Ron Finley’s garden, Los Angeles (c) Kate Friend

Flowers trail correspondence in their wake: memories and myths, specific sensory data. The lovely glowing hellebores picked by Jeremy Lee suggest a winter day in London, light waning by two or three o’clock, sky nacreous as an oyster shell. Writing at the end of the sixteenth century, the herbalist John Gerard attested to their urban presence, saying of the wild forms, ‘we have them all … in our London gardens’. At first glance these strange flowers appear a shabby pink. On closer inspection, they are frog-skin green, stippled with mauve freckles, protruding organs jutting rudely from the fine lustreware of the petals.

The sprays of pink and yellow roses chosen on summer mornings have a story-book resonance, while Olivia Harrison’s Himalayan blue poppy looks like a magical item, the desirable object of a fairy-tale quest. The photographer Juergen Teller chose a wild strawberry, a modest oddity in a milk bottle, a single berry lushly ripe. Where had I just been reading about a courtyard taken over by wild strawberries that sent their runners over every paving stone, until the grey space became a transformed jewel box of emerald and ruby?

Dan Pearson, Dierama pulcherrimum (c) Kate Friend

Some of the choices feel actively political. Alys Fowler has selected a Welsh poppy, with one fragile orange flower and one blackened seed head – a resilient plant, despite its ethereal appearance, that seeds itself into the most unlikely looking cracks. Then there is Isabella Tree’s ragwort, bright as a banner: that injurious weed pulled out by generations of livestock farmers and horse owners, but which, it turns out, is luxuriantly hospitable to many species of insect and so has been permitted to flourish liberally on the rewilded Knepp estate in West Sussex. A fly has settled on one of its daisy-yellow coronets, and there is a caterpillar on the stem. The ragwort looks dignified, despite its decades of traducing, humble yet confident of its appeal.

Sue Stuart-Smith, Tulipa ‘Helmar’ (c) Kate Friend

Hollyhock, cyclamen, Benton End iris. There is no end to the associations of these plants, their deep entanglement with human lives. Shot like this, with nothing but a clean backdrop of coloured paper to distract the eye, the intricacy of their forms is almost overwhelming. Look, say, at Amanda Fielding’s Fritillaria meleagris. They resemble miniature soldiers in snaky chequerboard helmets, grass-green spears braced in readiness for attack. The larkspur, by contrast, is lackadaisical, lolling, a wounding sky-blue. Lily, lily, sanguisorba, rose. Transient, fleeting, persistent, lighting up a world that is ever more inimical to their existence.

Portraits, As Chosen By… is available now from Lyndsey Ingram.

To get 10% off your book (full price £40), use code GARDENMUSEUM at checkout. 25% of the cover price will also be donated to the Garden Museum: buy the book

Top image: Sue Stuart-Smith, Tulipa ‘Helmar’ (c) Kate Friend.