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Object of the Week: Tresco

By Alison South, Curatorial Volunteer  

With our Director, Christopher Woodward, battling the waves on his fundraising swim from Newlyn to Tresco, this is a timely opportunity to review some of the Garden Museum’s collections from Tresco, in particular two watercolours which were painted at Tresco Abbey Gardens. Not only are the paintings of views of Christopher’s ultimate destination, but they were painted by members of the family whose ancestor, Augustus Smith established the gardens in the 19th century around the remains of a Benedictine abbey. Today the gardens are famous for their wide variety of plants from around the world’s temperate climatic zones.

Gwen Dorrien-Smith (1883-1969), Tresco Gardens, 1960 (2010.021)

Tresco Abbey Garden (above) is by Cicely Frances Dorrien-Smith. A sandy path is the dominant feature, bordered by evergreens, palms and blue and green flowering plants. Cicely was born in Tresco in 1882, the fifth of seven siblings. This painting is dated to 1910. Sadly she died in 1915 in her early thirties whilst working as a volunteer in troop canteens in northern France during the First World War. Cicely is buried in St Nicolas’ graveyard in Tresco and inside the church there is an elaborately carved wooden memorial screen.

Tresco Gardens (below) is signed by Gwen Dorrien-Smith and dated June 1960. The majestic phoenix palms stand pre-eminent amidst echiums, gazanias and numerous other flowering plants. In the foreground, a small urn sits at the edge of a sandy path.  Although painted 50 years apart, these two watercolours appear to be painted by sisters rather than by family members from different generations. Gwendolen Dorrien-Smith was born in 1883, a year after Cicely. She too volunteered during First World War, but in Red Cross hospitals in the England, France and Belgium. Gwen was an active artist throughout her life, and although she didn’t live on Tresco, she spent much time there. She exhibited regularly throughout her life and her paintings particularly seascapes feature in contemporary catalogues. She died in 1969 on  the Isle of Wight.

Cicely Frances Dorrien-Smith (1882-1915), Tresco Abbey Garden, c.1910 (2015.042)

The garden’s collection was expanded greatly by their brother Arthur Algernon Dorrien-Smith who made many trips to South Africa looking for suitable trees and plants. In 1907 he joined the  Sub-Antarctic Islands Scientific Expedition, carrying out  magnetic observations in the Auckland and Campbell Islands. Following the expedition he travelled widely in New Zealand, as well as making a shorter visit to Australia collecting more plants. In 1909 he again visited Australia, New Zealand and the Chatham Islands, returning on SS Athenic. By this time he had amassed a total collection of plants and seeds of about 2280 specimens.

The Garden Museum also has an admission notice for Tresco Abbey Private Gardens dating from circa 1965 which politely asks visitors not to pick the flowers as it is hoped the plants will naturalise and to refrain from lighting fires as they pose a risk on the Island. A popular tourist excursion the collection also has 5 postcards, including this one from the 1920s.

Read more about Christopher’s swim here.

Tresco Abbey Gardens Notice, c.1965 (2002.141)