Above, Sue England in front of the Cottage on a July day.
The creators of Denmans Garden, Joyce Robinson and John Brookes MBE, were interested in the concept and connection between art and the garden. Mrs Robinson had a painterly aesthetic, referring to her garden as her ‘canvas’ while Brookes, a Modernist, was influenced strongly by abstract painters, Ben Nicholsen, Piet Mondrian, and Kazimir Malevich. He taught that garden design is about the ‘relationship of shapes’ and believed that understanding abstract art could teach his students to understand how to create patterns and shapes in a garden layout and how those patterns and shapes should relate to each another and the architecture of the house. He remained keen to show that the connection between art and garden is multifaceted.
Sue England, our Artist-in-Residence for the past year, has interpreted their garden in her paintings. The culmination of her work is ‘A Year at Denmans Garden’ – an exhibition in the Pavilion at Denmans from Thursday 22 September to Thursday 20 October which is part of the wider Chichester Culture Spark programme celebrating Chichester’s cultural anniversaries in 2022. The annual John Brookes lecture (9 October), will this year feature a panel discussion on Art and the Garden, and an opportunity to reflect on Sue’s year at Denmans.
Having interviewed Sue in the first part of her year in the garden, we wanted to catch up with her again to reflect on the experience and her hopes for the exhibition and her ongoing work.
It feels like quite an achievement having completed a year documenting Denmans, even if I do say it myself! A year is a long time to work with the same subject matter. I tend to ‘flit around’ in my normal art practise, so this project has required more focus.
One of the key upsides has been the location and having quick, easy access to the gardens no matter the time of day or month of the year. Gwendolyn and all the staff have been kind, helpful and encouraging. It makes for a relaxing environment to know you’re welcome in the space.
A garden is very different from my normal landscape subject matter. It’s more enclosed with hardly ever a glimpse of a horizon line. It’s harder to simplify shape and form because you get distracted with the detail and textures.
I have felt the history and back story of Denmans in the way I have responded. I often felt their [Robinson’s and Brookes’] presence and sometimes figures appeared unsolicited in the paintings, a shadow behind a bush!
I thought the title of Joyce Robinson’s book very telling – ‘Glorious Disarray’. That’s often how it feels, particularly in Spring and Summer. There’s just too much going on and you are left not knowing where to look or what to concentrate on. A phrase that often came into my mind was ‘It’s all TOO much’!
John’s link with design and modern 20th century abstract art also proved interesting, particularly when looking at his garden plans. The curves and sweeping ‘vistas’ contrasted with all the detail, but it was harder to interpret in a more enclosed space. I love Ben Nicholson’s work and started a similar idea using John’s plans, but that particular theme unfortunately didn’t get developed.
The key benefit of this extended residency has been focus. It makes you really consider a specific space and be aware of the history and heritage. It makes you take what at first might appear to be a limited subject and explore lots of different ideas, some of which might not become apparent for quite some time. It’s a bit like being back in college and being forced to follow ideas through! It challenges you to find new ways of interpreting a place.
As we approach the exhibition it’s clear that putting on a one woman show is not just about producing the work. There is so much else to consider. A friend helped me when I was getting rather overwhelmed, by telling me to put away the paintings I thought might be finished (any artist will tell you, you’re never quite sure when that is), and don’t look at them until nearer the time. Good advice.
Then there is the cleaning up, the framing, the mounts, the fitments. Denmans had to install a new hanging system. I did a scale drawing of the walls and produced scaled images of all the potential paintings, prints and drawings. I had to decide how the images might relate to each other. I didn’t want a straightforward seasonal display.
The light in the exhibition space can affect the work. I wanted people to be able to walk THROUGH the exhibition, catching glimpses of other work, much like walking through the actual garden. I needed to produce a numbered database with all work for sale specified. Then there’s pricing and commission – always a nightmare, but I use a simple formula as a guide. Titles are important to me and I feel there needs to be a signpost for interpreting work, particularly the more abstract paintings.
Finding and transporting some extra panels, making the labels, designing the publicity, advertising, networking, finding help for curating a months long exhibition…and so it goes on. The actual painting is a doddle compared to everything else!
Following the exhibition I need to have a bit of a break, although a sketchbook is always to hand. Just drawing gets you back to basics and helps develop new ideas. I have some work in 2 other exhibitions during August and September and am part of a group Print Exhibition in early November. I also hope to take part in the Chichester Art Trail in May next year, particularly as I didn’t exhibit in 2022.
Initially, in this period following my residency at Denmans I intend to find some mountains and very open spaces where I can see the clouds! But I have changed the way I sometimes put the paint down. I’ve used smaller brushes and created much more texture with mark making and layers than I would normally. I realised you don’t always have to paint in the same way or ‘style’. The subject and my response to it has dictated how I actually make the marks and that can vary and it’s OK for it to do so.
My hope is that visitors to the exhibition ‘A Year at Denmans Garden’ take from it a sense of place. It will be MY sense of the place, but there might be connections that visitors recognise and if not, that can always create debate. Hopefully they might return to experience the garden in different seasons.
Also, for anyone who likes to draw and paint, at whatever level, I hope people take from it the knowledge that there is much to be gained from ‘just doing it’. The pleasure of losing yourself in time and place, of letting your thoughts and passions come out through your eye and hand, and of course your heart.
I am very grateful to have been given this opportunity by Gwendolyn and #CultureSpark2022, and really, one year was not enough.
Further information about the A Year at Denmans Garden exhibition and the John Brookes Lecture on Art and the Garden can be found here on our events page:
For more information on the wider Culture Spark programme click here.
Sue was interviewed for the Sussex Express and Observer Series about the collaboration earlier in the year. You can read the interview here.
An earlier interview with Sue about the start of her residency at Denmans can be viewed here.
Sue is recording her experiences and observations on her blog https://www.sueengland.co.uk/blog and Denmans will include updates on the garden’s website blog as the year goes on, beginning with an interview with Sue available here.
For more information on Sue go to