Paradise Regained

Some of my best friends are gardeners and I suspect they have a inkling of a paradise that I haven’t yet perceived. They are (the four that I’m thinking of) utter paragons of patience, in balance with nature, creative, knowledgeable, and humble in their understanding of and acceptance of human limitations. Or, at least, they’ve started towards that path. Gardening, I suppose, is partial dominance, partial submission, the perfect spiritual exercise.

My own fingers are pink, not green. I have a sense of when my houseplants are thirsty, but I can’t do any of the outdoor stuff. Perhaps it’s because I was never taught. My father loved both gardening and fishing (another exercise in tranquil, and usually unproductive, inactivity) but he loved order and control more than untameable natural growth. In his frustration at the wilfulness of nature he would usually pave the whole thing over with concrete slabs.

Nevertheless, I envy my friends’ ability to converse in horticultural Latin (one of them will shortly write a book on the subject), their assiduous visits to Great Dixter and Sissinghurst (where they might surreptitiously snip), their attendance at the Chelsea Flower Show, their membership of the Royal Horticultural Society, their trays of seedlings, their trowels and muddy boots. I do not belong, but I dream that one day, perhaps, even I might retreat from the city and the noise, to follow the advice of Roman poets and French satirists and cultivate my garden.

This tantalising other way of life is on display at the Royal Academy in London at an exhibition called Painting the Modern Garden – Monet to Matisse. It’s mostly Monet (1840-1926), or, rather, at its best it’s Monet, the last room given over to a triptych of Water Lilies painted by the artist in his last years, and never before seen together in Europe at a public exhibition. Refusing to leave the garden he had created and painted at Giverny, even as the Germans advanced into France, he stayed and continued to plant and paint. His was a creative double act (first the garden and then the painting of its beauty) and at the end of a long life, despite the horrors of war, he chose to paint only his garden, with ever greater concentration and abstraction, in consoling celebration of what he valued most – the human sense of beauty.


On a January day in London there’s no better solace I can think of than this exhibition. Whether they are Pissaro’s vegetable plots, Van Gogh’s squirming shrubs, or Klee’s geometric distillations, these paintings are all glimpses of another, usually better, life.

I visited the exhibition with Caroline, one of my four keen horticultural friends. Her knowledge is encyclopaedic and she soon pointed out an error on one of the captions to a Monet.

‘That’s not a something iris,’ she said. ‘It’s a something else iris.’ (I can’t reproduce the Latin terms.)

Gardening is her passion, so it was with some difficulty that I prevented her from making a correction to the caption, or the painting. So much for the spiritual plane.

When a man sits down in front of a garden, or strolls around in it, he steeps himself in delight. Because the garden is a paradise where a garden owner and a landscape gardener share the same dream in their common culture. Man first made a garden to try to produce a paradise in this world. The garden seems to be a paradise of the other world, somewhere out of sight.

Masaaki Noda, Dialogue with a Garden

The Art Gallery of Ontario

You’re lucky if you can find the way to your plane at most of today’s airports. They’re no longer merely the arrival and departure points for aircraft, but also shopping malls, restaurants, clubs for the privileged, and places of entertainment too. Heathrow Terminal 5, for example, is an obstacle course of retail and gastronomic distractions. So much so that sometimes the airport is the most fun you’ll have on holiday. Why board the plane?

Art galleries, too, have caught on to this, albeit for loftier motives. Ticket sales aren’t enough to keep the paintings on the walls. Without substantial subsidies galleries can’t afford merely to provide space for their paintings to hang, and cabinets for their curiosities. They must explore every possible avenue of cash generation.

The Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) in Toronto, which I visited on Saturday, is a fine example of this approach. Since its reworking in 2008 by Frank Gehry (a native of the city) it houses an upmarket restaurant, a shop that’s as large as any of the exhibition rooms, a café, a ‘function room’ for hire (where better to get married than in the company of a Francis Bacon and a Bernini Pope), and a cluster of education and research centres.

Once you’ve passed through the arrivals hall, avoiding the VIP check-in desk (a kind of art gallery version of business class), you’re left wondering where to go if you’re to see any actual paintings.

If you’re interested in architecture, though, the building is probably your destination (just as, if you’re a fan of Norman Foster, then Heathrow Terminal 5 is probably as much fun as wherever you’re off to). Gehry’s adaptation of the neoclassical central courtyard, and a hotch-potch of 1970s extensions, is an imaginative balance of the classical, the modern and the extravagant (a wooden spiral staircase twists and slithers its way from the first floor to the roof and beyond).

Gehry slither

The tall tower building at the rear of the gallery is clad in cool blue, reflective titanium.

gehry blue

But somewhere inside, if you can find it, there’s the collection itself (a selection from 80,000 paintings and other kinds of bric-a-brac) – a very manageable display of paintings by the French Impressionists (a beautiful Renoir, a Degas, a Monet (usually just one of everything)), the Renaissance and Flemish masters, all generously arranged and well lit. There’s an unexpectedly huge roomful of Henry Moore’s vast and dignified reclining and standing figures, in quiet but far from lonely communion, perhaps more of them together in one place here than you could ever see together elsewhere.

There’s a whole floor devoted to the work of Canada’s native artists. And you mustn’t overlook the African and photographic collections either, or a special temporary exhibition of disturbing images related to nuclear power, explosive and utilitarian.

Get a slice of this…

Atomic Cake-lo

The AGO is also a monument to generosity, and its fabric is as labelled as its contents. Indeed the labels are larger. You’re passing from one room to another through the ‘Rosy Tannenbaum walkway’, the roof is supported by the ‘Wasabi Family supporting girder’, the ‘Helen Battersby’ door sits snugly in ‘the Mary Minder door frame’, and the paintings are kept in good condition by ‘the David Clark and family humidifier,’ and so on. I presume the lavatories too are named, but I didn’t feel the need to check.