A friend invited me to visit the Garden Museum in Lambeth, which “explores and celebrates the art, history and design of British gardens and their place in our lives today.”
I had never heard of the existence of this museum and was very curious about how a Central London location was being used to present gardens. Having lived in Kent, the Garden of England for decades, where my late stepfather’s main hobby was looking after our acre and a half mature garden in Sevenoaks, I always admired English gardening. I now only have a small, slim front and back cottage garden, but I have a couple of fruit trees and have grown strawberries, raspberries and blueberries due to special varieties suitable for small spaces.
The first surprise for me was that the Museum is housed in the deconsecrated church of St Mary-at-Lambeth, containing the burial place of John Tradescant, an early gardener and plant hunter. In 1977, in order to preserve the gardener’s tomb, the Garden Museum was founded by Rosemary Nicholson, an admirer of Tradescant. There are several paintings in a room dedicated to the Tradescants. At the heart of the Museum is a sheltered courtyard garden designed by Dan Pearson as an ‘Eden’ of rare plants.
The Garden Museum has a permanent exhibition with the stories of great gardeners through a permanent collection of pictures, artefacts and tools from gardening throughout history. There are paintings and photographs exploring how and why the English garden. There are, in addition, events, and community projects. Through the lens of gardening, they look at art, architecture, plant science, food, sustainability, well-being and more.
There is an Archive of Garden Design, preserving the working records of leading British garden designers of the 20th and 21st centuries.
This autumn, there is a special exhibition honouring the landscape and nature paintings and sculptures of Antiguan artist Francis Archibald Wentworth Walter (1926–2009), known as Frank Walter.
He is considered one of the most significant Caribbean visual artists of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Called “Artist, Gardener, Radical,” the exhibition looks at Walter’s prolific body of work which examined Antiguan plants and landscapes, environmentalism, Caribbean and Black identity, social justice and the complexity of nature.
These around 100 paintings and sculptures have never been exhibited before. They are displayed in several rooms, accessed by a little corridor with large pictures of an Antiguan landscape on either side, transporting you onto the Caribbean island. This newly commissioned immersive set design, this exhibition gives visitors a nearly real-life experience of the warm climate of Walter’s ‘castle on a hill’ studio in coastal Antigua.
“Walter’s vast œuvre reveals an intellectual curiosity explored in a wide array of mediums and subject matters, including painting, drawing, photography, and sculpture; exploring landscapes and memory, flora and fauna, Antiguan society, scientific concepts, and more. In total, he created over 5,000 paintings, 1,000 drawings, 600 sculptures, 2,000 photographs, 468 hours of recordings, and a 50,000-page archive.”
Frank Walter led a pioneering and unique life as an environmentalist, intellectual, and philosopher. The visitor can watch a video of Antigua and Walter’s creations while listening to some of his poetry and research texts.
Walter worked on his paintings, which vary from tiny, colourful miniatures to paintings covering a whole wall, in his home art studio and gardens in a remote location on Bailey’s Hill in Antigua. His wood and stone sculptures remind of African art and his pictures could be called naïve—vivid colours and shapes as created by nature. Walter embraced the natural world and was inspired by the staggering views of the surrounding Antiguan countryside and the ocean.
Walter self-titled himself the seventh Prince of the West Indies, Lord of Follies and the “Ding-a-Ding Nook.” As is the case with many Caribbean islanders, he was a direct descendant of both enslaved persons and plantation owners. He tried to come to terms with this complex background to find peace. He decided that agriculture was a way of feeding his countrymen who had experienced economic hardship.
“He became the first Black man to manage a sugar plantation in Antigua, and later ran an (unsuccessful) campaign to become Prime Minister in 1969 on a visionary environmental campaign.”
After his failed attempt to enter into the world of politics, Walter lived in seclusion, filling his days with gardening and writing.