Review: Botanical Modernisms

As Alexandra Harris notes in Romantic Moderns, modernism is more typically considered to offer allegiance ‘to the wasteland, and not the herbaceous border’, a consideration proved inadequate by the recent Botanical Modernisms symposium, held on the 17th of August 2019.[1] The midsummer’s evening event, organised by Jasmine McCrory (PhD candidate at Queen’s University Belfast) in association with the National Trust, was devoted to illuminating discussion of modernism and the garden space, and based in the perfect location: the garden at Monk’s House in Rodmell, East Sussex, owned by Virginia and Leonard Woolf. Seated next to Virginia’s writing lodge, across from the orchard, and overlooking the south downs, we settled down to an event full of horticultural modernisms and replete with garden puns.

My own contribution to the evening was ‘Ford Madox Ford and Gertrude Jekyll: Twentieth-century Gardened Biographies’, a paper detailing memorial impulse in the garden writings of eminent Arts and Crafts horticulturalist Jekyll, and literary modernist Ford. Starting out with the tale of a mutinous bacon-loft, I considered Jekyll’s seasonal and spatial walks through the garden in texts such as Colour in the Flower Garden, noting how the Jekyllian garden interrupts and opposes the gardener’s ritualistic seasonal activities. In the second half of my paper, I turned to Ford’s potato-growing, and his tendency to create alternative biographies through the garden, to discuss how the practice of twentieth-century gardening appeared akin to a form of fictionalized historical biography.

Second up, Dr Laura Blomvall’s scintillating paper ‘The Second World War and the Poetry of Gardens’ brought the material and economic realities of war into contact with garden borders. Beginning by noting the lack of potential for “poetic dwelling” in a period dominated by housing shortages, Blomvall continued to highlight invasions of the Second World War into house and garden. Vita Sackville-West’s trust in the permanence and fecundity of land was contrasted with in-verse intrusions of planes amongst tree branches, as the occasional engine buzzed above us in real-time. There was something especially sad and wonderful about sitting across from the Woolfs’ orchard, as Blomvall repeated the following lines from Leonard Woolf’s Downhill All the Way:

One afternoon I was planting in the orchard under an apple-tree iris reticulata, those lovely violet flowers. …Suddenly I heard Virginia’s voice calling to me from the sitting room window: “Hitler is making a speech.” I shouted back, “I shan’t come. I’m planting iris and they will be flowering long after he is dead.” Last March, twenty-one years after Hitler committed suicide in the bunker, a few of those violet flowers still flowered under the apple-tree in the orchard.[2]

 Jack Head next delivered a stimulating paper on ‘Eagle’s Nest, Patrick Heron, and the Modern Garden in St Ives’, moving us down to Cornwall and visual horticultural modernisms. He took us through Heron’s life and artistic career, to question the intellectual link between Heron, St Ives, and Bloomsbury.  The garden at St Ives provided a formative space for Heron and his painting. Exploring how Heron’s 1956 move to Eagle’s Nest stimulated his movements towards abstraction, Head questioned whether the memories of his St Ives childhood entrapped Heron as much as stimulated him in his horticultural paintings such as ‘Azalea Garden’.

After a short break for refreshment and repose, the second session of papers began with Dr Camilla Bostock and ‘Vegetal Time: Modernism’s Prehistoric Plants’. As in earlier papers, gardens impinge upon their modernist counterparts; here, however, Bostock focused on the unknowably old aspects of plant life. Moving from fixed nineteenth-century ideas of the meaning and utility of plants, Bostock confronts us with Katherine Mansfield’s uncanny vegetal encounters. How can we assign a value to the unknowable, indefinable bush that refutes human meaning? Bostock was keen to stress the defamiliarising power of the garden within modernism, and noted that despite the gardener’s plan to measure the plant-life by seasonal or utilitarian means, they are often confronted instead with a vegetal derangement of time, and the thought of human extinction, a note made only more poignant when we consider our current position within the Anthropocene.

Next, we moved to Rory Hutchings’ ‘‘A Meeting Place Between Man and Nature’: Mysticism and the Modernist Garden’. Hutchings developed an exciting discussion of mystic horticulture, drawing on the late nineteenth-century writings of William Robinson on the “Wild Garden”—an  abundant planting style developed in response to stiff and formal Victorian geometrical schemes. Hutchings read Woolf’s mystic turn within The Waves alongside the Robinson-esque planting at Monk’s house to consider senses of rapture within the garden. Once more the garden worked beyond classification, and appeared key to sensuality in lived experience, as Hutchings highlighted Woolf’s eroticism.

The final paper before the keynote, ‘Tracing Mrs Dalloway’s Flowers’, read by Victoria Kornick, turned from the mystic to the material. Kornick seamlessly wove her own personal experience with an analysis of the cut flowers that appear so frequently in Woolf’s foundational novel, to think about the origin, and the transiency, of plants and gardens. Beginning with the sadness of a lost garden, Kornick traces the deliberate, ritualistic, and commercial histories of flowers from shop, to early morning market to their original cutting and sale. Kornick made us question what it means to share and cultivate flowers, and highlights the years of care within horticulture on both private and public scales.

The keynote was given by Dr Jeremy Diaper from Durham University. Entitled ‘‘The Life of the Soil’: Planting, Gardens, and Organicism in Literary Modernism’, Diaper’s enlightening paper looked to T. S. Eliot’s agrarianism, leading us full circle to read a horticultural landscape in The Wasteland. Particularly interesting was Diaper’s discussion of the influence of the soil for Eliot: his involvement in agricultural society; his concern for soil erosion and the over-cultivation of land; and the presence of “earthiness” in rural ritual. For Diaper, this concern for the land means that there is no bucolic bliss for Eliot, only a communal aim to reorient societal value, as focus on organic, naturalistic cultivation may also initiate a natural flourishing of culture.

Sadly, Diaper’s keynote was cut a little short by the impending dusk. Our position on the lawn above the ha-ha provided a stage for the darkening skies behind his head, and a potent reminder of the recurring themes throughout the symposium’s papers. Our garden location required consideration—the evening wind blew steadily, and it was hard not to notice the gentle interruptions of the outside (including the brief intrusion of a curious squirrel, and the odd escapee program). However, these mild disruptions only aided the success of the evening, emphasising the way we must work with gardens, their practical demands upon us, and the way they inform and impose upon us both materially and immaterially. It was a privilege to sit in the Woolfs’ garden, and to reflect upon the implications of modernist gardening amongst the carefully restored efforts of the National Trust, but it felt equally fortuitous to have been a part of such an exciting survey of botanical modernisms.


Words by Hattie Walters 

Photos by Laura Blomvell 


[1] Alexandra Harris, Romantic Moderns: English Writers, Artists and the Imagination from Virginia Woolf to John Piper (Oxford and New York: Thames and Hudson, 2010), p. 52.

[2] Leonard Woolf, Downhill All the Way, p. 254.

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