Anybody familiar with the greatest stories ever told would know that human beings have loved to envision ultimate joy as a garden experience. As Professor Robert Pogue Harrison of Stanford has pointed out in his excellent book Gardens: An Essay on the Human Condition (2008), gardens—both real and imaginary—have been a kind of haven for us, if not a heaven. They protect us from the frenzy and tumult unleashed by history. They counter annihilating and anarchic forces. And they are present throughout space and time as a mechanism by which we may make life better.
London-based artist Rebecca Campbell realises the universality of the garden in her delightful series “Gardeners’ World”, created in the first lockdown last year. She takes us on a journey across cultures and epochs, exploring our obsession with gardens in their myriad forms, from the original paradise of the Garden of Eden to the respite from modern life offered by rooftop urban gardens. These paintings capture the care and love with which gardens have been curated and cultivated throughout history.
Rebecca’s influences are eclectic: a love of nature came from growing up in the Irish countryside with a menagerie of beasts and birds. She writes on her childhood: “Growing up in Ireland, it was the perfect place for gardens to thrive with so much rain! My mother was a keen gardener and with the help of my father they created a wonderful garden including growing all their own vegetables. Another bonus of living in Ireland was visiting so many gardens, walled gardens were heavily featured to protect from the weather!”
She has travelled extensively; the biggest impact came from her three months spent in India, seeing first hand the Mughal miniature paintings with their rich earth colours, bold design and exquisite attention to detail. These influences remain the bedrock of much of her work today.
Rebecca writes on the collection: “The paintings include the original paradise of the Garden of Eden (The Eden Project); the meditative Japanese dry garden (Zen); the decorative Mughal garden (The Maharaja and the Mahoot): the Church cloisters with their practical medicinal and vegetable garden (Holy Order) to the very modern with gardens creating sanctuaries on top of skyscrapers (The Sky Is The Limit), amongst others. Gardening is a national obsession, it began with our ancestors, the plant hunters searching all four corners of our planet and brought back more and more exotic wonders (Botanist’s Bounty). The Dutch turned tulips into a commodity (Dutch Gold). It is hard not be believe that these or indeed rhododendrons and the magnificent magnolias haven’t always been here.”
Trained in illustration at the City and Guilds of London Art School in the 80s, the artist exhibits great technical mastery. The architecture, flora and fauna are rendered with much thought. Red, yellow, purple—a variety of flowers open up before the viewer. Earthworms and hedgehogs, bees and butterflies—every creature has its rightful place in this world.
The craft and art of gardening too is celebrated. In “Tools Of The Trade”, we find a wall with saw and sickle, fork and pruners. The effort that goes into cultivation is looked upon with reverence and affection. Then, a parallel of sorts is drawn between learning and gardening. In “Life Is Complete”, a library opens onto rows of bushes leading on to trees.
Elsewhere, proverbs are present: “One who plants a garden plants happiness”.
The artist quotes Audrey Hepburn: “To plant a garden is to believe in tomorrow.” The Indian writer Janice Pariat has elaborated on this virtue behind a garden: “A garden is in no hurry. It says the present is important, and dismisses our insistence on the forthcoming. Unwilling — because it can’t — to assuage our fears and uncertainties. Yet a garden is also always for the future. It coaxes us to nurture that most hardy of saplings: hope. That all will come to leaf and bloom at the right season, at the right time.” And that is precisely what Rebecca’s paintings are: contemplative spiritual exercises in hope, for herself and for us. With their beauty and bounty, gardens also provide solace and enhance our well-being during unprecedented times.
Rebecca has been showing her paintings with the gallery Jonathan Cooper, London, since 2002 as well as in the US, Mexico and Canada. Her work has been published worldwide in books, magazines and as greeting cards. She has taken part in many large public art events, including with the charity Elephant Family (she is their in-house artist and Ambassador). Her next exhibition, STILL•LIFE will be at Beaux Arts, Bath starting on 9th October 2021.
FOCUS: Where I will bring to your attention a charity and a business operating in the artist’s place of origin or addressing their themes. These initiatives are not affiliated with the artist or their galleries. You could donate to, buy from or invest in them.
CHARITY—Thrive (London, UK). They use gardening to bring about positive changes in the lives of people with disabilities or ill health, or those who are isolated, disadvantaged or vulnerable.
BUSINESS—The Garden Builders (London, UK). They are an industry-leading name known for designing a variety of gardens—private, commercial, roof, water—both in the UK and overseas.