Greencombe Triptych Presented Saturday 6th June 2009
BY JOHN HURFORD
Every so often you come across an example of someone’s lifetime work; the result of them steadfastly following their own particular personal passion. The life’s work I saw in the spring of 2007 was a garden. Original ideas in the world of gardening are rare. Most gardeners get their inspiration from a variety of sources – National Trust gardens, television gardeners or from garden centres. The Trust’s gardens have a rather corporate look to them, a uniformity of planting. TV gardeners chase the latest fashions and garden centres all tend to sell the same plants, the easiest ones to propagate and grow on in containers. So coming across a garden of original design, planting and propagation was a wonderful experience. The garden was at Greencombe, near Porlock in West Somerset, and the gardener was Joan Loraine (pictured left, with John Hurford, in front of the triptych on 6.6.2009).
I grew up on a farm, and I have always gardened. But for me gardening was all about food and feeding the family – the largest amount of food with the smallest amount of effort. The flowers I liked best and especially since I took up painting in the 1960s were the ones in the fields and hedges; the wild ones. The first time I met Joan was by chance. She knocked on my door asking if I knew the whereabouts of Tony Hurford. Tony is my brother and he ran the farm next to mine in the parish of Chulmleigh, North Devon. Our original family farm had been divided into two and we each ran our individual sections as separate organic enterprises. Having adjacent farms meant that we could on occasion help each other out and leave each other in charge when we went on holiday. This was such an occasion. Tony had gone away but had forgotten to mention to me that he had applied for theJoan Loraine Award. This is an award given by Joan every year to an organic farmer whom she judges to have done the best job of looking after their farm while paying the greatest respect and encouragement to the wildlife living on it and also to the environment. Before she can give the award she needs to visit each farm in turn and take a good look around for herself. She stood on the doorstep as she explained all this to me. I told her that Tony was my brother and, as I was looking after the place, I could show her around. I didn’t mention the fact that he’d forgotten to tell me she was coming. This was on an extremely hot summer’s day in August 2003. There wasn’t a breath of wind as Joan, my wife Jane and I set off on foot for the grand tour. The farm is only a couple of hundred acres but it is long and thin, bordered on two sides by deep wooded river valleys. Even on a cool summer’s day it can be a long hard walk taking several hours, but today it really was too hot. We’d walked several hundred yards on hard rough ground before realising that I would have to go back for the tractor. The chance to do the tour on the tractor made Joan very happy.
The inspection tooks two hours even with us riding on the tractor. Joan was very thorough at her job, getting off to look at banks of wildflowers, large trees and the condition of the hedgerows. I was amazed at the breadth of her knowledge of plants trees and the landscape. I learnt a lot from her that afternoon as she pointed out the history of the farming landscape, the ancient fields and the fields that were the result of the enclosure act. When we got back to the house we were parched and Joan needed a few cups of tea and some cake before her drive back to Porlock. I had recently turned part of my house into an art gallery and studio and had many paintings hung on the walls. Joan had noticed these on her way through to the kitchen and asked if she could spend some time looking at them. She seemed very keen on my work and when I had a book launch* in Exeter three years later I was delighted that she was able to come. Joan spends time from the beginning of August looking over farms for her award but before that in spring and early summer she opens her garden to the public. She said she was interested in commissioning me to do a painting. I have always painted flowers and even in the early days my psychedelic paintings included lots. So at the book launch there were my old very colourful and detailed works on the gallery walls together with some new large canvasses of irises and poppies. Joan wanted a large painting. She was putting up a new building in her garden to house her garden archive. Her garden had several important national collections and she wanted me to paint them. I said I’d love to do it and heard no more until the spring of 2007 when she rang and asked, “Where are you? You have to come and photograph my erythroniums.”
On our first meeting I’d asked what she did apart from looking around farms for her award and she modestly told me, “I garden.” So when I arrived for the first time at Greencombe on an April morning I was shocked by what I saw. I had imagined a large cottage garden with a few borders and a few flowering shrubs, but the reality was overpowering. The variety of the plants, the sheer size of the garden, the colours and the smells. She handed me a map of the garden and off I went following the paths on the map and photographing every flowering plant and fern I came across. Her garden is on a north-facing slope under Exmoor’s Dunkery Beacon and the surrounding hills. The tops of these hills are exposed to the weather and are covered in heather and gorse. As these hills fall into the sea their slopes become warmer and wooded. Wooded with Scot’s pine, birch and beech first, then oaks. Joan’s garden has these large oaks and also sweet chestnuts and a very old holly. Her garden also has the disadvantage of no sun in the winter. It is so tucked in under the hills that the sun misses the garden completely for several weeks. The first bit of the garden you see on entering her property is a large traditional one with flower borders, a vegetable garden, a lawn, some large trees and mature shrubs. Then through a gap in the hedge you go into a large woodland garden with first flowering shrubs and ferns between the trees, and then on to moss-covered areas with very little undergrowth which show off her delicate erythroniums. The whole garden is painstakingly well looked after without being noticeably manicured.
My first day at the garden was when the trees weren’t yet in leaf and the sun lit the patches of moss between the trees. Many of the small to full size shrubs were in full flower – the rhododendrons, the azaleas, and the camelias. A full range of colours, perfumes, flower sizes and even decorative barks. I realised a lot of thought had gone into the planting. My knowledge of garden flowers was not good. Although I’d been painting flowers all my life I didn’t know the Latin names of any of them. In truth most of what I’d painted in the past were wildflowers that I had found in the vicinity of the farm. I also had been incredibly lucky to be able to paint from life, picking flowers, bringing them into my studio to study them in detail. This was not an option here. Porlock is over an hour from me by car and the number of species coming into flower each day meant I couldn’t keep up. I simply had to photograph them and use the photos in my studio.
During that spring and summer I went every two weeks following the succession of flowers from camelias and erythroniums to the hydrangeas and summer roses. The archive building had already been started, but it was a couple of months after I’d finished photographing before the backwall had been set out. This enabled Joan to see the exact size she wanted the finished painting to be. We decided on a triptych, thus enabling the painting to be closed when it was not needed. I had just been for a weekend in Ghent and had seen the Van Eyk altarpiece The Lamb. This had made a great impression on me and I was determined to do a triptych. While in Belgium I bought some raw linen to paint on. Halfway through September I started making the panels. I began by sticking the linen onto wood in preparation for the work. I painted the first flower (a trillium) on the centre panel in mid October 2007 and had the three panels finished by the end of March 2008. This was more or less without a break. It was a mammoth task and I was learning as I went. I had never heard of erythroniums when I first visited the garden let alone gaultherias and vacciniums. I finished the painting and nervously took it to Porlock to show Joan. It is always stressful showing someone a commission for the first time especially as I was so proud of it and it had taken me the whole of the winter to paint. She liked it.
The presentation of the triptych, together with the opening of the ‘Registry’ building (above) by gardens expert Patrick Taylor, housing the painting and the records of the garden at Greencombe, took place on Saturday 6th June 2009. Photos: Jonathan Hill.