A gardener’s guide to the Love and Desire exhibition

There is much for a garden lover to enjoy in the work of the Pre-Raphaelite painters currently on show in Love and Desire at the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra (until April 28). Most famously there is Ophelia, with a bouquet of botanically accurate spring flowers drowning with her. The model, Lizzie Siddal, became so ill from long days lying in a cold bath that her father sued the artist John Everett Millais for the cost of her medical bills. Millais had put himself to nearly the same discomfort. He perched on the edge of a creek in Hampstead Heath from late summer into early winter capturing each willow leaf and strand of pond weed fringing Ophelia's watery grave.

Precise attention to detail and factual accuracy in the depiction of the natural world was a big part of the Pre-Raphaelite project (and of Victorian England in general, with its amateur fascination for collecting and studying everything from pebbles and fossils to mosses and ferns). For the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood close attention was a way of coming to truth, and of enhancing the moral message of art itself. Many of the morals in the pictures are hokey, but I do love the way gardens feature.

Geraniums, hollyhocks and an ornamental grape feature in the background of The Pet.Credit:Walter Howell Deverell, Tate

An overgrown garden in midday sun beams in the mirror in William Holman Hunt's picture of a lady in sleepwear (at noon!) coming to a realisation that she is headed down the wrong garden path. I want her to go fetch her secateurs and clear up that shrubbery.

In The Pet, a paintingby Walter Howell Deverell, a woman tilts her head to admire her pet bird. The bars of its cage are echoed in the glasshouse in which the lady finds herself, as trapped as her bird by the polite conventions of Victorian society. Outside, a sparrow hops on the garden path. Shrug off the hilariously obvious symbolism and just look at that gorgeous garden. In the glasshouse, a red geranium in a terracotta pot leans into frame, licked by tendrils of ornamental grape. Outside hollyhocks tower over a flowerbed of poppies and dianthus, and the gravel path meets an axis where a classical statue stands under the spreading arms of an elm.

John Everett Millais’ famous Ophelia shows botanical accuracy.
Credit:© Tate, London 2018

While these painters depicted the garden, it was a later Pre-Raphaelite, the poet, designer and printer William Morris who changed gardens. Though not a garden designer himself, Morris' "arts and crafts" philosophy brought artists and artisans together under a utopian vision that rejected industrialisation and linked the natural world to moral authenticity. The philosophy deeply influenced houses and gardens, and still does. Arts and Crafts gardens used local stone and stonemasons to build walls and pergolas, ponds and dovecotes in intimate gardens where roses climbed the walls and flowers flopped across the paths in a romanticised "medieval" simplicity. Two William Morris tapestries in the exhibition sum up the approach, and its continuing appeal.

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