Christopher Johnstone, The Painted Garden in New Zealand Art, Godwit, Auckland, 2008, pp. 272, ISBN: 978 1 86962 141 4 (hbk.).

James Beattie

Christopher Johnstone’s The Painted Garden in New Zealand Art is a beautifully produced book that should appeal to lovers of gardens and garden art the world over. Containing over 100 artworks of New Zealand gardens from early colonial times to the present, The Painted Garden is testimony to the powerful place of garden-making in the New Zealand artistic imagination.

An art historian and former Director of the Auckland Art Gallery (1988-1995), Johnstone selected the images for their innate aesthetic appeal as well as for their depiction of identifiable gardens owned by or known to the artist. A useful introduction surveys some of New Zealand’s main (European) garden history themes such as the vogue for the gardenesque, the introduction of exotics, and the initially gendered nature of botanical art, while each of the book’s five main parts is prefaced. Its five parts are organised into the following sections: the Early Artists (1830-1860); Later Nineteenth Century (1860-1890); Early Modern (1890-1940); Modern (1940-1970); Contemporary (1970-2008). A one-page discussion accompanies each image, placing it in its cultural, gardening and art historical setting. This allows Johnstone to guide the viewer through the image’s multiple layers and greatly enriches one’s appreciation of its aesthetic and historical significance.

The book’s wide breadth, both temporally and stylistically, means that it provides a visual record of different pictorial traditions and garden styles. Traditional topographical images informed by European picturesque conventions can thus be compared with neo-pointillist garden depictions. Richard Kelly’s draughtsman-like depiction of semi-rural Dunedin in 1862, with its close attention to detail and gorgeously vivid greens, can be contrasted with William Cumming’s neo-pointillism in ‘Garden’ (1976), with its Seuret-like haziness. In some instances, the individual layout of gardens – as interpreted by artists – can be discerned. Consider the two images of Governor George Grey’s paradisiacal hideaway on Kawau Island (by Alfred Sharpe and Constance Cumming respectively), which reveal the owner’s fascination with acclimatisation of exotic plants and animals. Compare the Grey mansion’s grandeur with the more modest settler home and garden of the Ardern family in Taranaki (by Hamar and Francis Ardern), with its neatly tended lawn and bright flowers. Contrast the gently subdued pinks and greens used to depict the garden (displaying the vogue for the ‘gardenesque’) and residence of Captain William and Mary King in Jermyn St., Auckland (1858) with Pat Hanly’s psychedelically bright, abstract ‘Garden Energy’ (1972).

In reflecting on the methods and perspectives of garden history, eminent garden historian, John Dixon Hunt, complains that, in their popular writing, ‘new wine is poured into old-shaped bottles,’ as ‘gardenists’ shirk their responsibility ‘to set their local work in context’. They make little attempt, he observes, to explain those ‘figures emerging from the shadows of the shrubbery in the light of either any narrative of garden making that might explain their significance over and beyond their mere presence on the scene, or any idea of the garden, to which they may or may not have contributed.’ In other words, there is often little attempt by writers of popular garden histories to contextualise their work in relation to other garden developments, let alone wider historical processes. While this, in part, reflects the divergence between popular and academic approaches (and here Hunt finds fault also with practitioners sequestered in the ivory tower), it also, he notes, arises as a result of a distinct lack of methodology or acceptance of garden history in university circles.[1]

With its sumptuous illustrations, printing on glossy art paper and hard-back publication, The Painted Garden in New Zealand Art is clearly a luxurious book. Its appearance would seem to indicate its market – towards the popular – yet it also is rare among such works in that it provides welcome detail and further notes that can be followed up on both garden history itself and the artists whose work is reproduced. As noted, there is a particularly useful contextualisation of New Zealand garden history in the introduction, while each entry facing the image contextualises the scene from a garden and art historical perspective. At the end are biographies of the artists mentioned (236-261), a glossary (263) and a bibliography (265-268) of further works an enthusiastic reader can follow up.

The author thus succeeds admirably in catering, first and foremost, to his popular audience, in the process also situating the work in its wider garden and art historical contexts. As such, then, The Painted Garden in New Zealand Art is a fine book, which should find a home in the library of many garden and art lovers while also serving admirably as a useful reference tool to academics.

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[1] John Dixon Hunt, ‘Approaches (New and Old) to Garden History’, in Michel Conan, ed., Perspectives on Garden Histories (Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, 1999), 77-90 (quotes, 81-82).