No other painter has left us a more complete, more accurate or more enchanting record of the English country house garden in the years spanning the late Victorian era to the 1920s than George Samuel Elgood.
The artist devoted himself to painting in the late 1870s after he had given up architectural studies at the National Art Training School and returned to Leicester to look after his family’s yarn business.
Early success at the annual exhibitions of the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool and the Institute of Painters in Water Colours was soon followed by a string of one-man shows, from 1891 to 1923, at London’s Fine Art Society. Reviewing his third exhibition there in 1895, the art critic of The Sketch remarked on 27 March:
It will at once be understood how much Mr Elgood’s work is appreciated when it is stated that nearly fifty paintings were disposed of on the opening day of the Exhibition… Among the purchasers were the Empress Frederick and Princess Louise. The Queen, who was unable to visit the gallery, telegraphed for one of the pictures to be reserved for her collection.
Elgood specialised in watercolours of formal gardens, and became an authority on their history and design, travelling to Spain, France and Italy to study and paint them. In later years his own garden at Knockwood, near Tenterden in Kent, which he established with his wife, became the subject of at least 20 watercolours.
He was also involved with publishing: the result of his collaboration with Gertrude Jekyll, the doyenne of British gardening, was the appearance in 1904 of Some English gardens, which reproduced 50 of the artist’s watercolours to accompany Jekyll’s descriptions. The book opens with Jekyll’s observation: ‘The English gardens in which Mr Elgood delights to paint are for the most part those which have come down to us through the influence of the Italian Renaissance; those that in common speech we call gardens of formal design.’
A remarkably early English garden ‘of formal design’ was that of Haddon Hall in Derbyshire, which Elgood depicted in Under the yews. It shows an elegant lady lingering on a stone staircase, beneath the low-hanging boughs of yews. Decades before Elgood painted the Elizabethan terraced garden, it had already acquired the romantic legend of Dorothy Vernon, the beautiful heiress of Haddon Hall, who is said to have escaped from a ball and fled down the garden stairs when eloping with Sir John Manners in 1563. The tale was fully elaborated in Eliza Meteyard’s short story The love steps of Dorothy Vernon (1849).
By contrast, The yew garden, Arley represents a recreated formal garden of the 19th century. This picture, together with several others inspired by his visit to Arley Court in Cheshire, was included in Elgood’s first exhibition at the Fine Art Society, A summer among the flowers, in 1891. Elgood revelled in painting the tiered sculptural forms of topiary, which here provide the setting for a lone peacock – that ever-present denizen of the formal garden. The iron gate has been deliberately placed to the right of centre, affording us a glimpse of the long herbaceous border and yew hedge behind.
Victorian watercolours, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney 2017