‘Greenhouse, West Dean Gardens’ by Royal Academician Olwyn Bowey is one of the most recent acquisitions to the Library’s art collections and something of a departure, in terms of subject matter, from the classical botanical illustration that makes up the core of the collection. While in no way wanting to diminish the importance of the botanical paintings, the Library is seeking to extend its remit and develop a wider category of ‘garden art’ or art from the garden.
Having secured a place at the Royal College of Art and moved from the north-east of England to London for the first time, Olwyn spent much of her first term wandering among the allotments and brambles on Barnes Common wondering how to translate this world of plants into art. She clearly succeeded as she was awarded a First Class diploma and went on to be elected a member of the Royal Academy in 1975.
Having always sought inspiration from capturing what she saw before her, botanical art might have seemed an appropriate avenue, but despite taking classes with John Nash, she discovered this was not the discipline for her. For many years Olwyn focused instead on portraiture, landscapes and still life compositions. She says she lacked confidence in her talent, but persevered honing her skill through repetition.
Finding West Dean
Following a move to her current home in West Sussex more than 20 years ago, Olwyn stumbled across the then derelict greenhouses and gardens at West Dean. Drawn to the dilapidated structures brightened by unchecked buddleia, she sought sanctuary in the peace of a garden that had yet to be tamed. Jim Buckland and Sarah Wain took over the restoration of West Dean Gardens after the devastation wrought by the great storms of 1987. Over the years the gardeners have become firm friends, aiding and abetting Olwyn’s desire to capture the structures and plants in the gardens there.
She describes the process as ‘acquisitive’. In identifying and painting a scene she says this is not an act of the imagination – her mother always claimed she was not an imaginative person – but the fulfilment of a desire to collect and own something that quite often belongs to someone else. In this way she likens herself to Alan Bennett’s ‘Lady in the Van’, as someone who arrives and camps in the front garden. A succession of landscapes have taken hold of her, of orchards and mill ponds, as well as the ubiquitous greenhouse.
The greenhouse appeals particularly as an ‘inside-outside’ space. A solid structure with its own microclimate, especially comforting in winter, the greenhouse allows one to see outside while very definitely being inside. She quotes Gwen John, saying that in seeking solitude in the greenhouse, she can turn on the radio and ‘keep the world away’. But the greenhouse offers more than just a bolt hole, it imposes a structure and composition on a painting that can be harder to achieve with a landscape painting. The greenhouse also offers a purpose for looking and focus for observation, seeing the plants contained within, against the linear structure of the architecture with the grating, supports, benches and window panes.
“I understand only what I see and I like what I look at – I never tire of it”
There is a comfort in the repetition of the seasons and emergence of plants. Bowey is ruthless in her pursuit of a pleasing composition and thinks nothing of removing interrupting branches from an old tree or defiantly scaling a step ladder to re-position a hanging basket.
Her greatest pre-occupation is that a pot or plant will have been moved, thus ruining the composition. The gardeners at West Dean tease her that they will be cleaning the greenhouse before she has finished. She describes her dismay seeing spilt colours mingle with muddy hose-water as the greenhouse is given its annual sluice, realising that despite her care she did leave a trace.
The greenhouse also offers more comfort than the open garden, as Olwyn prefers to work standing. She relishes the winter months at West Dean when the gardens are closed the public and she can paint and draw for longer without interruption. This picture took somewhere between three to four weeks throughout January 2016, the length of day spent working dictated by the brightness of the light – too bright and it is difficult to endure. The colour and shape of the glass panes alter under strong light and change the impression of the picture, as well as the intensity of light being too harsh to work in in any comfort.
The greenhouse for Bowey is similar to the cathedral, and as a confirmed atheist, she says it’s the closest she ever comes to a religious experience.
The devil's in the detail
She is obsessive about capturing detail and will spend hours observing and composing. An inverse practice, when compared to botanical art – she immerses herself in the planted environment taking the context and wider environment into her work. She says the mount and frame offer a limit to her pictures, as otherwise it would be hard to know where to stop.
When asked how she knows when a piece is finished she says she’s never entirely sure but it’s just that she can’t do any more. Sometimes nature intervenes, the leaves on a plant may have changed or the flowers dropped, but on other occasions she says she just can’t think of anything else to do.
Her favoured mediums are oil, pencil and pastel, and gouache. The medium will depend on the subject, for example she finds a big still life painting is best executed in oil. She is influenced by Anselm Keiffer and the texture of his work, saying she often scrapes out and moves around her paint to fit her subject. Her pencil and pastel work she thinks of very much as drawings that are a way of thinking or working out her observations. Similar to journalism, but in pictures, she describes her drawings as observations and interpretations of the world.
She will never paint from photographs, only from the subject in front of her and feels she must know the plants. Even if they are not clearly defined in the painting, she knows they are there. The yellow in the foreground of the greenhouse picture is of Lachenalia, interspersed by the gardeners between the nerines.
Bowey has been interested in wildflowers since the age of seven and considers herself something of an expert. Although delighting in planting and nurturing seedlings in her greenhouse at home, Olwyn suffers the same frustrations we all do, in encouraging favoured plants to flower.
At West Dean she has the best of both worlds, expert gardeners and a stunning environment.