I’m rather depressed about my garden: I think I lost a lot of perennials–including many dear old friends–over this past bitter winter. This is generally the week–or even earlier–that my favorite spring plants pop up, but so far all I see is trillium and pulmonaria in the “woodland garden” out back. Notably missing is my all-time favorite, the almost-magical Jack-in-the-pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum), which should definitely have popped up by now. I think my Jacks are dead, although several of my gardening friends tell me to not give up hope as we are as much as four weeks behind this year, but there is not a single little sprout to be found peeping through the mulch. I fear for my Lady Slippers, but they come up a bit later so I have not given into despair quite yet. The center perennial beds seem to be in better shape than the shady back, with the exception of the germander edging border that I’ve been slowly developing over the past few years: quite a few of the individual plants have been lost, breaking the uniformity of the border. I’m tempted to just rip them all out and start fresh with a hardier plant, and so I would really welcome suggestions for low-lying, traditional, hardy, front of the border alternatives.
So I am not spending these first precious days of May dancing around my lush, flowering garden (in a flowing white dress) because it is neither lush nor flowering: looking for inspiration (or escape) I am instead delving into the “Enchanted Garden” sub-sub-sub genre of paintings. Of course medieval-esque fantasy gardens are a favorite Pre-Raphaelite theme, but even before their Decameron-inspired images appeared in the nineteenth century, artists were inspired to amplify nature in rather seductive ways. In the later sixteenth century, the popular poem by the Italian poet Tarquinato Tasso, Gerusaleme Liberata (Jerusalem Liberated), inspired several paintings of enchanted gardens. The poem turns the Crusades into an epic fantasy, in which heroic Christian knights confront all sorts of obstacles in the Holy Land. One particular knight, Rinaldo, is enticed by the beautiful Saracen sorceress Armida to enter her lush garden, and there she keeps him occupied for quite some time, until he is rescued by his comrades. I like the painting by Flemish artist Jan Soens best among several illustrations of Rinaldo and Armida, because it seems to focus as much on the garden as on the sorceress.
Jan Soens, Rinaldo and Armida in the Enchanted Garden, c. 1581-1611, The Walters Art Museum
Several centuries later, Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron inspired several pre-Raphaelite painters to depict one of its most popular stories (the 5th to be told on the 10th day): the tale of the besotted Ansaldo, who conjured up a magical May garden in the midwinter for his lady love, Dianora, who had promised him that she would leave her husband and run away with him if he completed this seemingly-impossible task. Ultimately Ansaldo releases Dianora from her promise, and the garden dissolves “like the morning dew”, but it seems to have been a collective aim of British romantic painters to recapture it and other enchanted gardens for posterity.
Marie Spartali Stillman, Messr. Ansaldo Showing Diavola His Enchanted Garden, 1889; John Waterhouse, The Enchanted Garden, 1917, Lady Lever Art Galler, and study for above, Victoria & Albert Museum Collections
Also romantic, in a more naive way, are the paintings of British artist Helen Fielding (1900-1979) who depicted her Lancashire environment in an ever-charming way, including a garden that seems enchanted in all seasons, here pictured, as vividly remembered, in the spring of 1908. I love the inscription on the back, from the Christie‘s catalog: The Enchanted Garden was very/beautiful in April, when Father thought it would be better to send Mother, George and I also the Aunts, Grandma and Miss/Carter (who wore pink) to Grandpa’s at Blackpool/to be safely out of the way of the Suffragettes/in Lees. We saw for the first time the/Wild Cherries in flower and small trees/covered in the palest pink blossoms/which Grandpa said was the Crab apple, George and I had never seen trees/with blossom which covered them like/snow, also in the Enchanted Garden was/the pond which would soon be full of frogs/and tadpoles and the year was 1908/Helen Layfield Bradley 1975. I know just what she means by “trees covered with blossoms like snow”, don’t you? Still waiting for that here.
Helen Fielding, The Enchanted Garden, 1975