ANGEL TRAIL – THE GARDEN IN WINTER AT GRAVETYE MANOR AND RHS WISLEY

LOOKING AT THE GARDEN IN WINTER WITH AN ANGEL ON MY SHOULDER
pennisetum                Ethereal seedheads of Pennisetum alopecuroides ‘Hameln’, RHS Wisley

It has become something of a personal tradition at this time of year to set off with my backpack for a day of Christmas shopping and to find myself veering off into the cool marble halls of a favourite gallery or museum instead. Last week, on my way to buy some boxes of heavenly salted caramel chocolates from Fortnum & Mason (purchased with the time-honoured principle of three boxes to give as presents, one box to present to yourself … ) it became obvious that my time would be best spent in the Sainsbury Wing of the National Gallery. Here, amongst roomfuls of paintings which must collectively feature hundreds or even thousands of angels, the Gallery has cleverly chosen just ten particularly fine, 14th and 15th Century paintings to form a manageable and uplifting ‘Angel Trail’ for the Christmas visitor.

It is a powerful and cheering experience and I urge you to call in and see the paintings for yourself – at any time of year. The modest size of the ‘Angel Trail’ is key to its success because you have space in your head to look at the paintings properly. I remember hearing David Linley  on Desert Island Discs describing how his father, Anthony Armstrong-Jones, would regularly pop into the National Gallery with him, maybe on a Saturday afternoon on the way to something else, with the mission to look at just one painting intently. It was a brilliant gift from father to son.

The ‘Angel Trail’ paintings linger in my head as I return to my everyday world of plants and gardens. Ranks of golden willow leaves suddenly have the quality of angel wings and a fragile, papery seed head becomes a light ethereal presence. So here is my Christmas blogpost looking at the garden in winter, with an angel on my shoulder.

‘ANGEL TRAIL’ PAINTING NO. 1

Matteo di Giovanni, active 1452; died 1495 The Assumption of the Virgin probably 1474 Tempera and gold on wood, 331.5 x 174 cm, 150 kg Bought, 1884 NG1155 http://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/NG1155

The Assumption of the VIrgin, Matteo di Giovanni, tempera and gold on wood, probably 1474, National Gallery, London, Room 59

This monumental Assumption of the Virgin in its towering frame, offers a bulging Virgin Mary, radiant in pink, gold and white on a shimmering gold ground. The angels busy themselves in a fluttering network around her.

As I walk around the RHS garden at Wisley, the leaves of Hamamelis mollis ‘Boskoop’ hang fat, round and golden, happily echoing Matteo di Giovanni’s bold, fecund painting.

hamamelis closeHamamelis mollis ‘Boskoop’

Witch hazel is mostly grown for the fiery flowers that will open up from those velvety buds, but the power of the shrub to bring light into the late season garden with its autumn foliage colour should never be under estimated.

In a sunnier part Wisley’s Battleston Hill, the fine, shredded flowers of Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Orange Peel’ are already blazing away in this exceptionally mild December.

IMG_3503Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Orange Peel’

For the white and pink of the Virgin’s robe, and the throng of angels that encircle her, I offer this lovely rose – a tangle of white blooms and fading red hips against a pale blue winter sky:
white rose hips 2white rose hips 1

White roses and rose hips against a winter sky

‘ANGEL TRAIL’ PAINTING NO. 2

Lorenzo Monaco, active 1399; died 1423 or 1424 The Coronation of the Virgin: Central Main Tier Panel 1407-9 Egg tempera on wood, 220.5 x 115.2 cm Bought, 1902 NG1897 This painting is part of the group: 'San Benedetto Altarpiece' (L2; NG215-NG216; NG1897; NG2862; NG4062) http://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/NG1897

The Coronation of the Virgin, part of the San Benedetto Altarpiece, Lorenzo Monaco, tempera on wood, 1407-9, National Gallery London, Room 53

I am struck by the simple clarity of the pale pink, yellow and blue of the angels’ robes in this Lorenzo Monaco painting.

At Wisley I find the lovely evergreen ground cover Vinca difformis beginning to light up the woodland floor with its translucent powder blue flowers. This is a  vigorous but not invasive periwinkle which reliably flowers in late winter and early spring. I am happy to note how the pairs of bright green leaves form pairs of angel wings along the stem.

vinca close up

IMG_1290Vinca difformis, RHS Garden, Wisley – palest blue flowers and pairs of leaves like angels’ wings

I struggle to match the chalky yellow of the central angel’s drapery, but in Rosa ‘Mortimer Sackler’, (an almost thornless repeat flowering shrub rose with loosely double, very fragrant soft pink flowers), I find an excellent echo for the subdued whitish-pink of the angels on either side.

IMG_3653             Rosa ‘Mortimer Sackler’

Near the Alpine Houses, trailing rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis ‘Prostratus Group’) is in full flower. The shape of its arching stems mirror the shape of angel wings:

IMG_1360Rosmarinus officinalis Prostratus Group

‘ANGEL TRAIL’ PAINTING NO. 3

English or French (?) Richard II presented to the Virgin and Child by his Patron Saint John the Baptist and Saints Edward and Edmund ('The Wilton Diptych') about 1395-9 Egg on oak, 53 x 37 cm Bought with a special grant and contributions from Samuel Courtauld, Viscount Rothermere, C.T. Stoop and The Art Fund, 1929. NG4451 http://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/NG4451

‘The Wilton Diptych’ – Richard II presented to the Virgin and Child by his Patron Saint John the Baptist and Saints Edward and Edmund, English or French (?), egg on oak, about  1395-9, National Gallery London, Room 53

‘The Wilton Diptych’ is one of my favourite paintings. Here the eye is immediately drawn to the unforgettable rhythmic quality of the angels’ wings on right hand panel, as well the rich cobalt blue of the angels’ and Virgin Mary’s gowns.

At Wisley I fall for a fantastic willow with its suspended ranks of golden-yellow autumn leaves. It is Salix udensis ‘Sekka’  – the Dragon or Fantail Willow. It is a handsome plant for a moist part of the garden with unusual flattened stems and silvery green catkins. It can be stooled to 30cm above ground in spring to keep it a manageable size and is available from the wonderful Bluebell Nursery.

salix

Salix udensis ‘Sekka’, RHS wisley

In my search for elegant, rhythmically arranged leaves I make a new discovery: a really good looking, low growing Mahonia. Here the Mahonia eurbracteata ‘Sweet Winter’ – which will only reach a metre in height – makes a valuable evergreen understory to a handsome, rounded specimen of variegated Chinese privet, Ligustrum lucidum ‘Excelsum Superbum’:

IMG_1325 IMG_1324

Mahonia eurobracteata ‘Sweet Winter’ growing under variegated Chinese Privet at RHS WIsley

A few days later I am walking around the garden of Gravetye Manor  in East Sussex, the former home of Victorian ‘wild gardener’ William Robinson and now a wonderful hotel. The garden is is being passionately and imaginatively restored under Head Gardener, Tom Coward, and I have a brilliant morning with him learning so much about every aspect of the garden.

The heavy-boughed Magnolia campbellii – whose graceful branches dip down over the terraces of the Little Garden and the Flower Garden – also reminds me of the elegant Wilton Diptych angels. The Magnolia is silvery in bud against the bursts of rich blue sky.

IMG_1421

Magnolia campbelii, Gravetye Manor

‘ANGEL TRAIL’ PAINTING NO. 4

Piero della Francesca, about 1415/20 - 1492 The Nativity 1470-5 Oil on poplar, 124.4 x 122.6 cm Bought, 1874 NG908 http://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/NG908The Nativity, Piero della Francesca, oil on poplar, 1470-75, National Gallery London, Room 66

IMG_3707

IMG_3708

IMG_3710Details from: The Nativity, Piero della Francesca, oil on poplar, 1470-75, National Gallery, London, Room 66

I have long loved the soft, sober, no frills – no wings – absorption of these music making angels in this scratchy, tough, almost monotone countryside Nativity. There is a timelessness and naturalness to the painting style – you can feel the arrival of winter in a warm, dry land.

In the garden at Gravetye, stands of artichokes are left to cast jagged silhouettes against the sky, the glaucous new foliage contrasting as sharply as baby Jesus’ blue blanket with the arid land around him.

chok1 1 choke 3 Winter seed heads of artichokes, Gravetye Manor

In one border, slender golden stems of Calamagrostis form a sand coloured sheet beneath the artichoke seed heads:chosek2WInter seed heads of Artichokes with Calamagrostis, Gravetye Manor

Back at Wisley, Phlomis russeliana forms neat stands of pompom seed heads on upright stems – a good match for the tightly shaped trees in the background of the Piero della Francesca painting.

phlomis russeliana

Phlomis russeliana seedheads, RHS Wisley

‘ANGEL TRAIL’ PAINTING NO 5

Fra Filippo Lippi, born about 1406; died 1469 The Annunciation about 1450-3 Egg tempera on wood, 68.6 x 152.7 cm Presented by Sir Charles Eastlake, 1861 NG666 This painting is part of the group: 'Medici (Overdoor?) Panels' (NG666-NG667) http://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/NG666

The Annunciation, Fra Filippo Lippi, egg tempera on wood, about 1450-53, National Gallery, London, Room 54

IMG_3689

IMG_3691

Details from The Annunciation, Fra Filippo Lippi

An extremely beautiful and intense painting with subdued, subtle colouring and a powerful sense of the Virgin Mary bathed in the light of the Angel.

In the garden at Wisley the arching stems of this berberis, the leaves just turning to gold, light up and give energy to a rather demure autumn shrubbery.

colouring berberis? colouring berberis 2Arching stems of berberis, RHS Wisley

It is hard to find a sweetly jewelled spring meadow in December, but this lone magenta Cyclamen coum has emerged from a low mat of rounded, silver-marked leaves and will soon be joined by more flowers.

cyclamenThe first flower in a mat of Cyclamen coum

In the garden at Gravetye I am smitten by the soft, low mounds of winter flowering heather – Erica carnea.  Tom Howard is pleased that I like them so much – winter flowering heathers have become so deeply unfashionable -but here they look wonderful, gently clothing the stone walls and providing an inviting, cushioning, tiny-flowered back drop to the steps and benches. He has been trying to champion them, but is not sure how well the conversion attempt is going!   They are fantastically easy to grow and, unlike most heathers, don’t need an acidic soil. These heathers at Gravetye have the idiosyncratic, spreading elegance that comes, of course, with plants of a certain age, so consider planting sooner rather than later.

IMG_3742

IMG_3743

Mounds of Erica carnea providing a soft backdrop for steps and benches at Gravetye Manor

‘ANGEL TRAIL’ PAINTING NO. 6

Master of the Saint Bartholomew Altarpiece, active about 1470 to about 1510 The Virgin and Child with Musical Angels about 1485-1500 Oil on oak, 52 x 38 cm Bought, 1985 NG6499 http://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/NG6499

Virgin and Child with Musical Angels, Master of the Saint Bartolomew Altarpiece, about 1485-1500, oil on oak, National Gallery, London, Room 64

IMG_3712

IMG_3713

Details of Virgin and Child with Musical Angels, Master of the Saint Bartolomew Altarpiece, National Gallery, London

This lovely, playful, much more mannered painting is full of movement and the colours are bright – clear pinks, whites and a luminous pale gold. The delicate columbine to the left of the Virgin allludes to the Holy Ghost and to the right there are cornflowers and carnations – the latter symbolic of Christ’s future sacrifice.

In the absence of these early summer flowers I suggest the beautiful, velvety buds of the winter flowering shrub Edgeworthia chrysantha. I love the baby-toed neatness of the buds against the elegant network of cinnamon coloured branches. Soon the buds will open to reveal fragrant yellow flowers, immaculate clusters of tiny yellow trumpets which look almost too perfect to be true.

IMG_1345 IMG_1347Edgeworthia chysantha, RHS Wisley

For pale pink and an even sweeter fragrance which carries tantalisingly in the air, upright shrubs of the wonderful Daphne bholua are already in flower all over the garden.

daphne b 1Daphne bholua, RHS WISLEY

‘ANGEL TRAIL’ PAINTING NO. 7

Geertgen tot Sint Jans, about 1455/65; died about 1485/95 The Nativity at Night possibly about 1490 Oil on oak, 34 x 25.3 cm Bought, 1925 NG4081 http://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/NG4081The Nativity at Night, Geertgen tot Sint Jans, oil on oak, possibly about 1490, National Gallery, London, Room 63

This ‘Nativity at Night’ was unknown to me before this visit to The National Gallery but it will now be amongst the first Nativity paintings I will think of at this time of year. It is a powerful painting with an extraordinary radiant glow emanating from the baby Jesus, a lustrous depth to the surrounding darkness and a haunting, tiny, crumpled angel hovering above.

The ethereal angel follows me closely as I observe the winter garden – here in a stand of delicate just-standing seed heads of the white globe thistle, Echinops bannaticus ‘Star Frost’:

echinops 4Echinops bannaticus ‘Star Frost’, RHS Wisley

Here in the fine, bleached fragility of end of season Pennisetum alopecuroides ‘Hameln’:
pennisetum                                               Pennisetum alopecuroides ‘Hameln’, RHS Wisley

and here in the tousled, light-catching, cotton-wool seed heads of white japanese anemones Anemone x hybrida ‘Honorine Jobert’:

jap close up

jap anemoneAnemone x hybrida ‘Honorine Jobert’, RHS Wisley

At Gravetye Manor in East Sussex the air is so clean that the naked branches of deciduous trees and shrubs are lacy with exquisite lichen which has something of the same suspended, ghostly quality.

lichen 1lichen 2                                            Lichen on naked branches, Gravetye Manor

‘ANGEL TRAIL’ PAINTING NO. 8

Bartolomé Bermejo, about 1440 - after 1495 Saint Michael triumphant over the Devil with the Donor Antonio Juan 1468 Oil and gold on wood, 179.7 x 81.9 cm Bought by Private Treaty Sale with a grant from the American Friends of the National Gallery, London, made possible by Mr J. Paul Getty Jnr’s Endowment Fund, 1995 NG6553 http://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/NG6553

Saint Michael triumphant over the Devil with the Donor Antonio Juan, Bartolomé Bermejo, oil and gold on wood, 1468, National Gallery, London, Room 63

This extraordinary painting of an elegant angel in fully armoured battle mode is infused with a dull golden glow and a pinky-red, the colour of the interior of a pomegranate.

I am struck by the fine, metallic, wing-like quality of the classic garden sea holly, Eryngium giganteum ‘Silver Ghost’ in its crisped December phase:

eryngimum leaf eryngiumum and perovskia

eryngium 2jpg                                           Eryngium giganteum ‘Silver Ghost’, RHS Wisley

And I love the way these backlit velvety buds of Magnolia campbellii at Gravetye frame the view of the soft red Liquidambar tree in the mist beyond – a fine match for the subtly burnished tones of the painting.

backlit mag buds and liquid

Liquidambar framed by backlit buds of Magnolia campbellii, Gravetye Manor

liquid mist

Liquidambar in the mist, Gravetye

There is a similar regal, wintry feel to this sombre view of a pine tree and heavily berried Viburnum opulus:

IMG_3770

Pine tree and heavily berried Viburnum opulus, Gravetye Manor

‘ANGEL TRAIL’ PAINTING NO.9

Simon Marmion, active 1449; died 1489 A Choir of Angels: From Left Hand Shutter about 1459 Oil on oak, 57.6 x 20.9 cm Bought, 1860 NG1303 This painting is part of the group: 'Fragments of Shutters from the St Bertin Altarpiece' (NG1302-NG1303) http://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/NG1303

A Choir of Angels, Simon Marmion, oil on oak, about 1459, National Gallery, London, Room 63

IMG_3697

Detail from A Choir of Angels, Simon Marmion, National Gallery, London

The clear, almost tropical colours and wonderful dynamic energy of these perfectly arranged angels in their gorgeous curving robes make for a painting more powerful and more memorable than you might expect from its modest size – just over 50 by 20cm.

This brilliant green and yellow oak leaf is a perfect echo:

IMG_1394Oak leaf, December, RHS Wisley

As are the neatly arranged leaves of one of my favourite shrubs for winter/early spring, Stachyrus praecox – here showing brilliant acid green end of season colour which contrasts perfectly with the luminous pink of the petioles. In early spring the tiny ruby buds will open into pendant strings of primrose yellow bell shaped flowers on bare branches.

stach again stach

IMG_1344

Leaves and buds (bottom photograph) of Stachyrus praecox, RHS Wisley

I come across this stand of Cornus sericea ‘Hedgerows Gold’ at a rather brilliant moment – the leaves going into winter with a wild dance as they turn from green to yellow to pink:

IMG_3586

mystery angel plnat 3 mystery angel plant 2 Cornus sericea ‘Hedgerows Gold’, RHS Wisley

‘ANGEL TRAIL’ PAINTING NO. 10

Hans Memling, active 1465; died 1494 The Virgin and Child with Saints and Donors (The Donne Triptych) about 1478 Oil on oak, 71 x 70.3 cm Acquired under the terms of the Finance Act from the Duke of Devonshire's Collection, 1957 NG6275.1 This painting is part of the group: 'The Donne Triptych' (NG6275.1-NG6275.3) http://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/NG6275.1

The Donne Triptych, Virgin and Child with Saints and Donors, Hans Memling, oil on oak, about 1478, National Gallery London, Room 63

IMG_3702Detail of The Donne Triptych, Hans Memling, about 1478, National Gallery, London, Room 63

I love the calm order and balanced structure of this Hans Memling painting, the flat mid-green of the landscape beyond, a gentle, anchoring contrast to the rich red of the Virgin’s robes and  the canopy above her throne. The focus is, of course, upon the fruit being offered to the baby Jesus. There are no enticing pears to be found on my travels around the December garden but there are other gorgeous fruit which are celebratory enough for a Christmas painting.

I have long wanted a strawberry tree – Arbutus unedo. Such a handsome evergreen tree which has the generous quality of offering its pretty shell-pink flowers at the same time as its scarlet pendant fruit. Arbutus unedo is pretty as a small shrub but worth planting as soon as you can, as a spreading, slightly gnarled mature tree is particularly handsome. The fruit are edible although famously ‘unedo’ is believed to be a contraction of the Latin ‘unum edo’ – meaning ‘I eat one’ i.e. they are not as appetising as you might hope.

arbutus flower 2arbutus flower 1
arbutus 2 more arbutusArbutus unedo ‘Roselily Minlily’, RHS Wisley

Elsewhere at Wisley this medlar tree is humming with its strange brown fruits suspended like tiny, happy space ships amongst flying yellow leaves:

medlar 2medlar 1

Medlar fruit and leaves, RHS Wisley

My favourite fruit – absolutely worth seeking out if you can – is the extraordinary fruit of the Handkerchief tree, Davidia involucrata. The garden at Gravetye boasts two wonderful mature Davidias – and maturity is what is required as a young tree typically takes 15-20 years to flower. The flowers are surrounded by spectacular, slightly drooping, white flower bracts – which give the tree its ‘handkerchief’ name:

davidia-involucrata-flower

Davidia involucrata in flower

The spherical nut-like fruits that follow hang from particularly graceful curving pink stalks – as dynamic and covetable as an Alexander Calder mobile:

IMG_1428 davidia fruits IMG_3763

 

 

davidia fruits silhouetterDavidia involucrata fruit, Gravetye Manor

My final festive offering is this perky alternative Christmas tree – a monkey puzzle or Araucaria araucana. I love its muscly form – the fine mid-green takes me back to the immaculate grass sward of The Donne Tryptich:

monkey puzzle monkey puzzle close upMonkey Puzzle tree in the December sunshine, RHS WIsley

IMG_3702

The Donne Tryptich, Hans Memling, National Gallery, London

So I have reached the end of another year of THE DAHLIA PAPERS.  It has been a brilliant year with so many unexpected and uplifting new friendships and new connections. Thank you so much for reading, following and commenting and I wish you all a very Happy New Year,

Non,

19.Xii.2015

PS You may enjoy listening to a podcast I recorded this week for the Guardian on the best gardening books of 2015 – with the Guardian Gardening Editor, Jane Perrone, Books Editor, Clare Armistead, Matthew Wilson (‘Landscape Man’) designer, writer and snowdrop expert, Naomi Slade and Director of the Garden Museum, Christopher Woodward

http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/gardening-blog/audio/2015/dec/19/sow-grow-repeat-best-gardening-books-of-2015

6 thoughts on “ANGEL TRAIL – THE GARDEN IN WINTER AT GRAVETYE MANOR AND RHS WISLEY

    1. nonmorris Post author

      Thank you! I have enjoyed so many of your posts this year – you are unstoppable! Thanks for your comment too about the link to the podcast, I will double check it. Have a very Happy Christmas too, Non

      Reply
    1. nonmorris Post author

      What a lovely comment to receive on a gloomy Thursday afternoon! Thank you. Just plotting my next post and feeling encouraged by hearing from you. All the best Non

      Reply

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s