The Queen's Gallery exhibition is painting paradise

As spring beckons and thoughts turn to the garden, on Friday a major exhibition opens at the Queen's Gallery. It traces the history of garden design, from formal early royal gardens to relaxed, romantic styles.
About 150 paintings and objects range from Persian miniatures to plant sketches by Leonardo da Vinci, watercolours of 19th century cottage gardens to botanical ceramics, and an exquisite gold and enamel orange blossom parure given to Queen Victoria by Prince Albert.

Who but royalty would collect Fabergé-enamelled flowers on gold stems set in rock crystal glasses? Or use priceless Sèvres vases (or, even rarer, a towering 17th century tulip vase designed to show off the flowers whose bulbs, at the height of tulip mania in 1637, cost 10 times the average Dutch wage).

A love affair with botanical porcelain means there's a delightful collection of 18th century botanical tureens from Chelsea Porcelain Manufactory, including a cauliflower, an apple with an arched caterpillar handle, and a pair of tied asparagus bundles.
 
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A Young Man by Isaac Oliver, 1590-1597, and a Van Nost urn made for Hampton Court Palace in 1701

Later, from 1880, there's a Meissen tête-à-tête — a tea-service bobbled with realistic forget-me-nots on a matching porcelain tray. Imagine breakfast in bed with that. The Queen Mother collected Chelsea Porcelain botanical china and, even today, you can buy exclusive examples in the gallery shop, such as a salad plate for £29.
 
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The family of Henry VIII, 1545

During the 16th and 17th centuries, hundreds of new plants were discovered and imported, giving rise to botanical gardens such as Oxford, along with florilegiums, or flower books. 

The Royal Collection has 13 botanical drawings by Da Vinci, of which two are on show. In 1597, John Gerard published his famous Herball, recording many of the 1,000 plants in his garden near Holborn, which included novelties such as potatoes.

Baroque garden design reached bold new heights of man-made engineering that included dramatic water features, long canals and great tree-lined vistas and gallops.

At Hampton Court, laid out in this style, Queen Mary also had 1,000 orange trees in planters, and many Delftware vases for cut flowers. From 1690 to 1696, William and Mary designed spectacular gardens for Kensington, with radiating axes, parterres and 3,500 shrubs. The dramatic cascade of the Water Gardens at Bushy Park, created in 1710 by Lord Halifax, was an absolute wonder. The 18th century favoured more natural-looking gardens, famously designed by Lancelot Capability Brown and later by Humphry Repton.

Now, as well as private royal gardens, there were some public ones such as Ranelagh and Vauxhall. Though you had to pay to stroll in those raffish places, similarly wild St James's Park could be enjoyed for free.
 
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An unnamed tulip by Alexander Marshall c1650

During the 19th century, as prints of watercolours helped circulate ideas, the cottage garden took hold of the public imagination. Victorians loved beds of vivid massed flowers, while new prefabricated cast-iron greenhouses made growing them easier.

A charming painting of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert at Windsor, started by Sir Edwin Landseer in 1840 just months after their marriage and completed in 1845, shows a domestic scene.

Prince Albert's determination to teach their children gardening brought the royal couple closer to ordinary people than ever before, while opening Buckingham Palace's garden to the public for parties from 1887 set a seal on this trend.
  • Painted Paradise: the Art of the Garden is at the Queen's Gallery from March 20 to October 11. 
  • Go to www.royalcollection.org.uk for details.​

Images: Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II

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