Painting Paradise: The Art of the Garden

If anyone mentions Buckingham Palace and gardening, it’s usually the famous summer garden parties which are under discussion. Now the Palace has added a different topic to the conversation with the recent opening of Painting Paradise: The Art of the Garden at the Queen’s Gallery in London.

This must-see exhibition is crammed full of treasures from the Royal Collection showing how gardens have inspired art over four centuries. We often debate whether gardens are art, so it’s refreshing to have that argument turned on its head for a change.

It’s also surprising to find the first known portrait of a gardener, one Jacopo Cennini, dated 1523 complete with the tools of his trade. He was gardener to the notorious Medici family, and must have been held in high regard to have had the expense of his likeness painted in oils. I wonder which of our gardeners are deemed worthy of portraiture today.

The exhibition starts with the Persian concept of the garden as an earthly paradise. Here the art depicts imaginary gardens, but by the time of the Tudors, real gardens are shown. What follows is a visual garden history, showing how fashions and royal or noble patronage changed the garden’s landscape. It’s also fun to spot the tiny details, such as a gardener and his dog at Windsor, or a trug left on the path. A parallel strand shows the development of botanical art, which includes sketches by Leonardo da Vinci.

It’s not all paintings and drawings. There are plenty of everyday objects elevated into art. From William IV’s oak table covered entirely in silver with a pineapple motif (which may have been a jibe at his rival Louis XIV of France as he lost the race to grow the first one) through to exquisitely painted ceramics and cheeky serving dishes shaped as vegetables. My favourites were the Carl Fabergé flowers: botanically correct forms comprised of precious and semi-precious stones and so delicate they’d sway in any passing breeze.

The exhibition’s tour ends with a colourful painting of Queen Victoria’s garden party held at Buckingham Palace to celebrate her Diamond Jubilee. Amongst the crowds it’s fun to spot Edward VII and a very young Edward VIII.  It’s a very different scene, yet it echoes the dynastic emphasis shown in 1545’s painting of The Family of Henry VIII at Whitehall Palace.

The story ends with Victoria’s reign, a time when fine gardening ceased to enjoy the sole patronage of royalty and the landed gentry, and widened to become one of the markers of success of the newly-formed middle class. It would be good to see a follow-up exhibition in the future which takes the story forward into the 20th century. In the meantime, this is a wonderful depiction of garden history and how our great gardens have changed over 400 years.

Painting Paradise is open from now until Sunday 11th October. Adult admission is £10 and includes an audio tour.  NB you can get your ticket upgraded to a 1-year pass if you purchase it directly from the Royal Collection Trust. Full details of the exhibition and other options for visits to Holyrood House, Windsor and London can be found on the website.

Michelle Chapman is a gardener, freelance writer and blogger from Wiltshire. She is the author of the award winning blog, Veg Plotting, where she writes about her small town garden, seasonal food and anything else which strikes her whilst up at her allotment. Her blog can be found at .

Link to use for the website: Image from