As I sit in the studio contemplating the seasons, it’s alternately sleeting against the window and graduating back to sun, a more valiant version today than the watery sun of past months.
Snowdrops have heralded the beginning of the end of winter, and the light is lengthening perceptibly.
We still have some weather to endure, no doubt. But that breathless, exuberant madness that is spring - after a winter bereft of growth - is approaching.
Winter itself has been dark and quiet in the garden.
A few startling signs of life pierced the days.
I disturbed a large hedgehog while moving what appeared to be a large pile of leaves – thankfully with my boot, not my spade.
And a young stoat entertained me while I looked out from the kitchen window, scurrying and popping up around the secret garden.
The snow in December was a treat – not too much to be inconvenient, but enough to make snowmen, and to highlight the parterre. Snow is always magical, including the peace that comes with it.
Garden visits are an excellent way to handle winter, and tend to reveal their structure without the froth of exuberant planting coming through. I enjoyed several this winter.
And the lure of the plant catalogues cuts through the grey January days… but more of that below.
May 2018 bring you all you wish for.
Wiltshire, February 2018
As winter reached its height, the snowdrops started to emerge from cold earth. These charming flowers herald the end of the harsher season and represent an exciting moment in the horticultural calendar.
As the first flower to emerge from the ground, they lead the parade which marches towards the brighter months, moving through crocuses, narcissi, and tulips.
The Priory garden has at least 6 varieties, and I have added two more, but there are over 300 in total. My ambitions are unlikely to stretch that far!
I was surprised to learn that they have a fragrance -- which I experienced in person when I brought some inside to paint. It's heavenly, soft and honeyed, but only able to be detected from large drifts on warm days outside.
I look forward to expanding the collection of these charming flowers in my garden over time.
RHS London Spring Show 2018
RHS Halls, Victoria, 12-14 February
The Royal Horticultural Society’s London Spring Show from 12-14 February set the scene for the 2018 shows, with some specialist growers and thought-provoking displays.
The centrepiece of snowdrops suspended from the glass roof in paper bags with dried leaves interspersed was an innovative way of placing these flowers at eye height for a closer look, and the overall effect was ethereal.
For more on RHS London shows, click here.
Kew Gardens Thai Orchid Festival
Reception evening, 13 February
I was fortunate enough to be invited to the reception at Royal Botanic Gardens Kew for the Thai Orchid Festival in the Princess of Wales Conservatory.
This is the 23rd such festival Kew has run.
On a freezing February night it was a delight relish in the tropical warmth of this conservatory, decorated with 7000 orchids and some spectacular displays, including a rice paddy complete with a water buffalo.
Some ingenuity was clearly involved, and the result is a fabulous, bright attraction in what is otherwise a quiet time, horticulturally speaking.
The festival is on until 11 March and entry is included with a ticket into Kew Gardens.
Pop-up exhibition in Chelsea
Some good news for spring - I'm collaborating on a pop-up exhibition during the week of Chelsea Flower Show 22-26 May in London.
The inspiration is spring and the beauty of nature.
My partner in this endeavour is the lovely Cabbages and Roses, a quintessentially English boutique in Chelsea, which will host the event.
Christina Strutt, whose divine sense of creativity is behind the brand, has long been an inspiration of mine.
With her sense of beauty, her dynamism, and her exquisite taste, Christina and her team have created an entire philosophy of clothing, fabrics and homewares.
Together we are celebrating spring, the Chelsea Flower Show, and all good things happening in Chelsea in May.
I’ll provide more information on the pop-up and private view as we approach.
Worldwide Botanical Art Exhibition
My painting of Callistemon rugulosus has been accepted by the Australian chapter of the Worldwide Botanical Art Exhibition 2018, in May 2018.
This project is an ambitious global collaboration between botanical artists and institutions worldwide, creating and exhibiting botanical artworks of native plants found in each of 25 participating countries.
For the project, artists have documented wild plants in their countries to create a record of today’s botanical diversity.
These artworks have been submitted for juried exhibitions in each participating country, on view in 2018.
Organized by the Botanical Art Society of Australia (BASA), Australia’s exhibition will be held in Ainslie Arts Centre, Canberra. The exhibition will be open May 18 - May 27, 2018, 10am - 4pm daily.
BASA has a busy calendar of workshops and exhibitions throughout 2017, leading up to the worldwide exhibition. Events will be scheduled for the Worldwide Day of Botanical Art on May 18, 2018.
Although each country’s exhibition will have its own opening and closing dates, all exhibitions will be on view on May 18, 2018, and each will have events scheduled to celebrate this historic project.
Window exhibition in Corsham
During the darkest, bleakest week of the year, I took over the window of our local framer’s 17th century shopfront in Corsham, Wiltshire. Corsham is a beautiful town, with 15th century origins, a historic house (Corsham Court) and peacocks which freely wander about the streets.
The exhibition was a chance to engage with new audiences wandering past the window, some of whom were not familiar with the discipline of botanical painting. My work in progress painting of a quince branch proved popular with those wanting to understand the process better.
Many thanks to Steve from Right Angle Picture Framers, who was a delightful host.
On the easel this season
Lining up next on the easel are a line of spring flowers for the Chelsea event in May, including snowdrops, fritillary, narcissus and tulips. Strong lines and clear colours are the markers of spring flowers, with simplicity at its aesthetic best.
An iris commission is also in the wings.
I have started the planning phase for my entry into the Royal Horticultural Society’s Botanical Art Exhibition, proposed for 2019. I was accepted to exhibit by the RHS Pictures Committee in 2016, and have moved to the planning stage, having decided on a theme and settled arrangements with the plant sources.
The next stage is to finalise particular species, to research them, and start plotting to sketch and prepare the drawings at the right times and seasons for each plant. It’s an ambitious project requiring close attention, as the standards of the RHS Pictures Committee are exacting.
Important sale of work
Rather excitingly, I have sold a piece to an important national collection in the UK. Once details are settled, we will announce the sale, probably in mid-spring. It will be worth the wait...
The Priory garden renovations
This time last year I had dabbled in making changes to the garden - despite deciding initially that this should be postponed for several years - and had started planning some modest adjustments.
This soon metamorphosed into a wholesale renovation effort, involving machines and people, new tools and plants, bulbs and seeds.
I had thought I could just leave it all in place this year.
But as the plant catalogues trickled in throughout January, thoughts turned to little adjustments here and there, and I now see I have a large box of dahlia tubers in the garage, new snowdrops, lilies, white acanthus, an annuals order brewing away on my computer and some boxes from Kelways and J Parker en route.
Helpless in the face of the potent catalogue onslaught, I conceded. No other choice.
The red front border will be an extravagance of dahlias (many of the dinner plate variety that were so dramatic last year) in dark chocolate reds and mid pinks, with some peach.
There will be a new bed along a stone wall with “spiky blues”, acanthus mollis, eryngium, artichoke, cardoons and salvias.
The house bed in the secret garden will have its messy edge straightened and be simplified with a central line of echinops throughout, edged with miniature buxus, and a line of verbena bonariensis along the house wall.
Another job that was to be left for future years has now apparently become current, too. Oh dear... The new yew hedge hiding an unsightly wall was planted in November and the rose/iris/tulip bed in front of it will be planted up this year.
With a box hedge in front, it will be clear that this new garden takes as its genesis the rose gardens at Malmesbury Abbey Gardens (garden visits have been such an inspiration). I have to note that my friend Mrs Hughes planted this idea in my mind after a visit together... for which many thanks!
The Photinia x Fraseri Red Robin standards in the red border are starting to leaf up with their garnet-coloured growth, and before I know it, I will be starting the annual competition with the slugs and snails for enjoyment of the garden!
Colesbourne Park, Gloucestershire
On a crisp winter day (creeping up from 1 to 3 degrees) I went to see the magic that is Colesbourne Park near Cheltenham, Gloucestershire. It was a wonderful day out, and a treat to wander around such an authoritative estate on snowdrops, alongside troops of galanthophiles.
Colesbourne Park is holding snowdrop days on Saturdays and Sundays from 3 February to 4 March 2018.
Colesbourne has a strong history with Galanthus. In 1874 Henry Elwes of Colesbourne had discovered Galanthus elwesiis whilst travelling in western Turkey and he became one of the prominent galanthophiles of his day.
It is clear that he planted widely, as the Colesbourne Park garden today contains large populations of snowdrops, many of them hybrids, descended from those plantings. New cultivars have been added to the collection each year, with the collection now totalling some 350 cultivars.
The present day collection, and the magnificent swathes of cultivars such as 'S. Arnott' and G.plicatus 'Colossus' are the result of the renewed interest of Carolyn and Henry Elwes, who have devoted much time to replanting and expanding the groups. New varieties are added each year, with the collection now totalling some 250 cultivars. Colesbourne Park is renowned as one of the best places to see large groups of choice snowdrops.
The patch of Galanthus 'S.Arnott' at Colesbourne (below) is one of the sights of the snowdrop world. The original bulbs were sent to H.J. Elwes by the Scottish gardener Samuel Arnott, who raised several hybrid snowdrops. Regular division and replanting of the clumps has led to the current magnificent sight and the various other plantings of ‘S. Arnott’ to be seen around the garden.
The wonderfully vigorous double snowdrops raised by H.A. Greatorex are also very successful here, with large patches of ‘Ophelia’ and ‘Hippolyta’ (below) in the wood (I fell victim to both the 'Hippolyta' and 'S.Arnott', now happily ensconced in my garden).
After looking over all the plantings, I was enchanted by the church bells, whose bell-ringers who started to pull their ropes in the estate church as I arrived. They had set up a live video in the tower, too, so the bells' movement could be seen as they rang.
A charming place, with great care and attention paid to hosting this most subtle of flowers.
Some of these materials are sourced from the Colesbourne Park website.
Determined not to let winter set into my bones, I visited Westonbirt Arboretum in January, on a freezing day, with ice in the air and mud underfoot. But Westonbirt is a place for all seasons, and was certainly up to the challenge.
Westonbirt is in Gloucestershire, three miles from the Cotswold market town of Tetbury. The historic, Victorian picturesque landscape and tree and shrub collection is managed by the Forestry Commission.
The 15,000 labelled trees (around 2,500 different types of tree) come from Britain, China, North America, Japan, Chile and other temperate climates. Planting started in the 1850s by Robert Holford; the Victorian landowner to whom the Westonbirt estate belonged.
Westonbirt Arboretum consists of three main areas. The Old Arboretum is a carefully designed landscape dating from the 1850s offering beautiful vistas, stately avenues and trees from around the world. (this is my favourite part). Silk Wood is an ancient, semi-natural woodland which has exotic plantings throughout its landscape, whilst the Grade I listed Downs has grasslands.
Westonbirt attracts over 400,000 visitors per year and is known worldwide for its spectacular autumn colour and the spring rhododendron, azalea and magnolia displays.
I always do the treetop walk on the high platform, giving close-up views of pine cones, buds, and leaves that are impossible to see properly from the ground.
On this visit I was struck by the winter forms of the Acer collection, with some leaves clinging on valiantly, and moss and lichen decorating the branches.
At its simplest, Westonbirt is a library of trees and good walks. It has one of the clearest, best visitor interpretation schemes, with many questions answered before you think of them. Tree labelling is amongst the best I have seen.
A great way to cure the winter blues.
Dyrham Park is always a delight to visit - the sweeping drive down through the deer park to the formal, elegant 17th century house is one of the delights of Wiltshire. The house is owned by the National Trust, and has always had gardens at its core.
This winter I dropped by to see the snowdrops. And the orangery, which is always a good place in winter, with overwintering citrus and other tender plants. (This orangery was also a political statement of support for William III, the Prince of Orange, whose courtiers often grew the fruit, where necessary with ambitious heated greenhouses like that of Dyrham Park.)
The current house was built for William Blathwayt in stages during the 17th and early 18th centuries on the site of a previous manor house.
Next to the house is the 13th-century church of St Peter, where many of the Blathwayt family are buried. The house is surrounded by 274 acres of formal gardens, and parkland with a herd of fallow deer. There is a large lake behind the house, with plantings.
The house and estate were renovated in 2014 and 2015 (I've had a wonderful tour of the collections behind the scenes, from where it's possible to see astonishing acres of new lead roofing).
The snowdrops were well advanced, gracing the entrance of the house. The winter gardens were elegant and well kept, with mulching and other late winter maintenance underway. (Always a reminder of what I'm not getting to in my own garden!)
This local treasure is always worth the visit, especially given it's only a ten minute drive...
Below is a copy of Dyrham the Seat of William Blathwait Esq. Engraved by Johannes Kippublished 1712 in "The Ancient & Present State of Gloucestershire", by Sir Robert Atkyns (d. 1711).
And finally, to leave you with some atmospheric photos of north Wiltshire in winter.