Rachel Warne is probably best known as a very able commercial photographer whose work appears in gardening and lifestyle magazines such as Country Living and The English Garden. However, her skills and portfolio extend substantially beyond this point, as a current exhibition, Faded Glory, at the Garden Museum in Lambeth Palace Road, on for just over another week until 27th February, demonstrates.
The exhibition, although quite small in scale, punches well above its weight because of the powerful mood and atmosphere it creates. Occupying three sides of a room at one end of the cafe, the display consists of about sixty apparently randomly framed photographs of gardens and garden buildings that have fallen into disrepair and decay. Nonetheless it is actually very carefully staged, like a performance piece and works its effects immersively and subtly. You almost feel you could be in the back corridors of some Victorian country house where photographs had been artlessly piled up on the walls and probably observed only in passing, but are then drawn in to the content.
Rachel’s images, (alongside some small framed and cased displays of much earlier Victorian or Edwardian ones of the gardens in their prime, including postcards and cartes de visites), are all in black and white, often with quite a loose focus and captured from a relatively low angle. The resulting romantic melancholy is charming and on occasion almost gothic.
In one sense the meaning of the photos lies in their skilful capture of textures, the contrasts of black and white and the local sense of decay. In this respect one thinks of US photographers such as Aaron Siskind or even artists like William de Kooning or Hugo Weber. Of course you don’t need to have any view on that sort of thing to enjoy them for what they are.
In another sense they appeal to our sense of transience, giving rise to sensations of melancholy in a rather Romantic way. By looking at these images of fading gardens long past their prime we participate in the process of celebrating them for what they are as much as mourning what is lost. As gardeners we are used to the natural cycle of the seasons and moved by the birth and decay of even the most majestic of trees over long periods that exceed our own life spans, so we find the idea of renewal implicit in cultivation.
But ruins are something else; to look on the works of man in a state of dereliction inevitably causes one to pause for thought. Gateways, conservatories, orangeries, hothouses and even pathways are depicted fallen into disrepair. They are embraced, overshadowed, and even overwhelmed by the trees, climbers and other plants that have grown up around them. Apparently an Indian maharaja, shown Lutyens’ New Delhi by the proud Viceroy, remarked “These will make the noblest ruins of them all.” Somehow, we struggle with that idea a bit and it’s that tension that makes these images particularly powerful.
Carefully selected, the chosen sites include Hapsden House, Pentillie Castle, and the walled garden at Luton Hoo, as well as Myddelton House and La Chaire in Jersey. Of course, the appearance of permanent decay and decline is sometimes deceptive and this is indeed pointed out on the information boards that form part of the display. In some cases either the part of the garden photographed has yet to be renovated but the rest is in good heart, or a programme of works is planned, or the area in question is being used for some worthwhile purpose such as supporting combat traumatised veterans to gain peace through gardening.
This is an exhibition well worth seeing. If you are in that part of London, just south of Lambeth Bridge, or in a position to get there one lunch time, it really is worth a visit and the food in the cafe is pretty good too.