From then to now

It’s late May and the irises are in full bloom. Irises are definitely in my top ten favourite garden flowers along with roses, foxgloves, poppies, lilies, hellebores, tulips, clematis, dahlias, and, those great favourites of the medieval illuminators, columbines. Each May when the aquilegias flower I think of illuminated manuscripts and the unnamed artisans who spent hours in their workshops decorating religious texts.

Columbines (aquilegia vulgaris) decorate this page from the Isabella Breviary, 1497, Flemish. MS18851, f.124

And, it wasn’t just aquilegias that filled the margins, for illuminators included images of the different flowers found growing in their own local districts. From about 1300 onwards there is a wonderful variety of illustrations including daisies, honeysuckle, clover, cornflowers, the dog rose along with the blossom of fruit trees and the blooms of flowering herbs.

Irises decorating the Bourdichon Hours, early 16th century, French.. MS 18855, f.33

Gradually, during the course of the 14th and 15th centuries, the making of illuminated texts became a specialist business with the production of breviaries, prayer books, psalters and books of hours from workshops across Europe. Stylised and simple motifs of flowers gave way to more naturalistic representations such as the irises seen in the Bourdichon Hours (above) and the almost ‘impressionistic’ iris seen in the Huth Hours (below).

Iris from illuminated page of The Huth Book of Hours. 1485-1490 Flemish. MS 38216, f130v

I haven’t got any irises in my backyard as yet, and I’m still wondering if there would be enough hours of direct sunshine for them to bloom, but, fortunately, halfway down my road I spotted some in the little community plot.

Irises bringing some colour to the raised vegetable beds at the local community plot.

This plot was one of those small, unloved areas which didn’t belong to anyone and has now been turned into a shared space, a community veg plot with a handful of raised beds and some seasonal flowers to brighten the whole affair. A number of local people who live in neighbouring flats or homes without gardens, spend their spare time planting, weeding and harvesting. This attractive project was instigated by one of my neighbours who’s also the Green Party candidate for our ward.

There is something heartening and positive about the continuing existence of a genus of flowers, admired and illustrated, that way we can track through the centuries. It would be nice to think that humans will be around for the next 700 years to enjoy the iris and the rest of the natural world, but that requires the present generation of world leaders to put their own personal ambitions aside, take a longterm view and start to deal with the climate crisis – seriously.

Glamorous garden flowers – The Iris


Irises are a great favourite not least with some of the world’s most famous artists. Vincent van Gogh painted several ‘Iris’ pictures depicting clumps of bearded irises.

van Gogh irises
Irises – Vincent van Gogh. 1889. Oil on canvas. 93 x 71 cm. J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, CA, US

Then, of course, there was Monet’s garden where irises had been planted en masse.

Le jardin de l’artiste à Giverny. Claude Monet. 1900. Oil on canvas. H81.6cm x L. 92.6cm Musée d’Orsay, Paris, France.

And, it’s not just Western artists that have been inspired by the iris. The iris’s complex, sculptural form has been exquisitely represented in Japanese Edo Period woodblock images.

Grasshopper and Iris. Katsushika Hokusai. Late 1820s. Woodblock print, ink and paper. H 24.8 x L 36 cm Metropolitan Museum, New York, US.

I recently cleared all my father’s tulip display and noticed the irises were just about to bloom, unfortunately he couldn’t see them from the house. It feels sacrilegious to cut them in their prime, but better to appreciate them fleetingly indoors than not at all.


If bearded irises are cut with full buds they will then open over two or three days.

And, I thought these particular colours as well as the irises’ luscious form combined well to make a design that I could possibly develop further sometime in the future for some silk scarves.

irises-square copy 2

Or perhaps this less muted more fresh combination.

iris-ideas copy

Take time – photograph the invisible

A little old doggy hiding under the coffee table.
A little old doggy hiding under the coffee table.
Iris-film-poster-2015There’s been a delightful buzz and critical acclaim for the documentary film ‘Iris’. It is refreshing, no, it’s actually amazing to see that a film has been made about a 93 year old lady. Iris Apfel is an eccentric, New York born interior designer not only renowned for her work, but also famous for her personal style of outsized glasses and exceedingly bold accessories. I was hoping to go and see this film at a cinema, but despite living in a large English county popular with folks for their retirement not one cinema will be screening this film! All I can guess is that the film distributers decided nobody would be interested. It is available ‘on demand’, but a film showcasing such a vivid character with many shots of vibrant textiles, almost psychedelic outfits and rich interiors would be so much more enjoyable on a big screen.

My mother an older, but glamorous granny.
My mother an older, but glamorous granny.
Of course, it’s easy to criticise and it made me think more generally of how we visually represent older women and on the whole we don’t. Apart from the Queen (90 next year) and those sweet, fluffy grannies beaming out from residential/care home brochures, pictures of women over 70 years old in the wider media are notable by their absence. In an era when there have never been more photographs taken and every third image is somebody’s selfie why do we have this absence? Here’s hoping following the return of ‘The Great British Bake Off’ this week with the fabulous Mary Berry (80 years old) back on the telly, other active, articulate, interesting elderly women will become visible.

Sadly and guiltily, I have to admit when scanning through the many photographs I took during the last family get togethers before my mother died, I’d only photographed the children and the dogs, but fortunately my teenage daughter took a few snaps of her granny.

Photographing the invisible too late, the gap left by my mother.
Photographing the invisible too late, the gap left by my mother.

Hooray, hooray, hooray

Bearded-irisJust quickly got to comment on the ‘Best in Show’ at Chelsea this year. It has been awarded to the ‘Laurent-Perrier Garden’ designed by Luciano Guibbilei. It is a beautiful garden, I love lupins and foxgloves, but it is his comments to the press that I have really appreciated. He is not a fan of the so-called low-maintenance garden and said,

“This idea of low-maintenance gardens – I’ve no idea who told this to people. It does not exist. The people that want no-maintenance gardens, they should go and play golf. That is what they should be doing.”

Just when and why gardens were supposed to be low-maintenance I have no idea. Most of that type look like supermarket car park plantings to me. I am just over the moon that a leading garden designer has stridently pointed out that gardens are also about gardening. Hooray, hooray, hooray – rant over!

Here’s a flower, bearded iris, from my very much NOT low-maintenance garden.


Beautiful flowers for Chelsea Week

Bearded-irsToday is Press Day at the Chelsea Flower Show and it’s always exciting to get the first glimpses of this year’s garden designs on the television. Every year I wonder at the tremendous horticultural skills displayed as plants are held back or forced forward to be at their best for this week in May.


These photos are some of the flowers in my garden at 7.00 am this morning. All the hard work done by mother nature!

And, here’s a bud, the perennial cornflower (centaurea dealbata), full of potential that will take over as the alliums and aquilegias fade away.


Painterly tulips, Balthasar van der Ast and May Day

Tulipa-Princess-IreneMy friends know I enjoy down time in the garden and little garden gifts are much appreciated. I always plant out everything I’m given, but sometimes the colours don’t fit well with a particular planting. This situation at first may appear disappointing, but in general, it is a bonus as I don’t feel guilty when I immediately cut them for the house.

Every spring these striking red and yellow tulips (tulipa Gavota) return and, despite plenty of background green, do not fit with the main pink, white and orange display in the back bed. Therefore, it is the chop!

On cutting and arranging them I was reminded of the Dutch craze for tulips in the seventeenth century and the many beautiful still life oil paintings of floral displays that included tulips. The above painting, ‘Flowers in a vase with shells and insects’, is by Balthasar van der Ast and now hangs in the National Gallery, London. Photographic reproductions do not do these type of paintings justice. With a close examination of the flowers in the painting I can clearly see an iris, some tulips, a rose, some carnations, a pale pink and white antirrhinum, and, more in the shadows a fritillary and a sprig of mauve lilac.

I don’t grow carnations and I have lost all my snake’s head fritillaries as my soil is far too gritty and parched, but I’ve just been out in the garden (May Day) and located examples of flowers in the painting. Although some are by no means in full bloom and others have nearly gone over, the snap dragons (antirrhinum Night and Day) have not even started producing buds! We all know that the professional growers can keep flowering back or force it forwards, just think what they do for Chelsea each year, and I’m guessing some of these skills are centuries old. But we must not forget that however true to life a work of art may appear it is still the product of the artist’s creative interpretation. All those different flowers may or may not have been together in that pewter jug sometime in May 1630.

And, this wouldn’t be a May Day post without a photo of the classic May-tree blossom – the hawthorn (Crataegus laevigata) – commonly used for garlands (outside the house only) for a traditional English May Day celebration.


A February Favourite

Iris Katharine HodgkinThese irises are my favourites in February. They are the dwarf reticulate iris, Katharine Hodgkin. In full bloom they stand about five inches tall and are most often planted in rockeries, but I have mine in a more messy, informal grouping under a weeping pear.

Iris Katharine Hodgkin raindrops

The books say the bulbs should be planted in a light, neutral soil in full sun. My soil is extremely sandy and so to prevent the bulbs drying and shrivelling up in the dormant season I’ve planted in the shade of a deciduous tree.

Iris like porcelain

Once the irises have stopped flowering the small tree comes into leaf and provides light shade to shield the bulbs. And, as a bit of insurance I also cover them with a thick bark mulch to keep the moisture in and the weeds at bay.

Clump Iris Katharine Hodgkin