Go on admit it…you’ve never heard of Beatrice Parsons. But believe it or not a century ago she was one of the leading garden painters in Britain, with many exhibitions to her credit, and her pictures collected by fashionable society, including 30 owned by Queen Mary. Nowadays we might think her work a bit chocolate-boxy, but underneath the sometimes almost unreal, brightly coloured flowers she captures the glory days of the Edwardian border but also the smaller more ordinary gardens of the suburban middle class.
Born in 1870 she was educated at Kings College and the Royal Academy Schools. She started exhibiting at the Academy at the age of 19, and although many of her early subjects were religious or historical in nature, within a few years she had shifted to painting gardens, and in particular colourful and blowsy flower borders.
Although mainly known for these flower-filled garden scenes which became popular for greeting cards and postcard as well as for book illustrations, she also tried floral still-lifes and more general landscapes, such as bluebell woods, and even the occasional portrait.
She had a breakthrough when she showed one of her early garden paintings to Chares Dowdeswell, a London gallery owner and dealer.
According to her niece in a story retold in Hobhouse and Woods, Painted Gardens , he put his finger over the person she had included in the scene and asked her to paint forty figureless garden paintings which he promised to exhibit. This led to her first solo exhibition at Dowdeswell’s Gallery on New Bond Street in 1904, and it was virtual sell-out.
The Times rather tartly said that she displayed “a dainty talent” and “treads successfully in Mr Ellgood’s steps” (More on him in a future post). The success led to a profitable and long lasting relationship with Dowdeswell and later she also exhibited with the Greatorex Gallery. Between them they hosted at least 22 one-woman shows of her work.
Queen Alexandra and particularly Queen Mary were great fans, and visited many of the exhibitions, often buying pictures for the royal collection. In 1910 for example Queen Mary bought a painting of delphiniums in a Bournemouth vicarage garden
Parson’s first attempt at illustration seems to have been a for a book of poetry by Mrs Dollie Radford in 1897: the Times called her drawings “unequalled in merit”. In 1910 she was one of several artists who helped illustrate Dion Calthrop’s The Charm of Gardens and in 1911 worked with Ernest Cooke doing all the illustrations for his Gardens of England.
Beatrice Parsons worked for many aristocratic clients including the Princess Royal at Harewoood, and every year between 1921 and 1929 she was invited to Blickling to paint the gardens there.
One group of paintings depict gardens at Overstrand in Norfolk which was known as the ‘village of millionaires’ in the early part of the 20th Century. In 1888 Lord and Lady Battersea bought property there and called in Lutyens to create a new home: ‘The Pleasaunce’. It is one of his earliest works and a rather surprising design to put it mildly. For a detailed architectural account see:
It was too early a project for Lutyens to have involved Gertrude Jekyll and the Batterseas designed the gardens themselves. He was a brewery magnate and former Liberal MP, and she was a Rothschild, and both were avid art lovers, collecting Whistler and Burne-Jones amongst many others. It is a mark of her skill and popularity that it was Beatrice Parsons they commissioned to paint their splendid new gardens.
The garden was romantically described in Ellen Thorneycroft Fowler’s novel Ten Degrees Backward, 1908, as the ‘Garden of Dreams’. Set on the edge of a cliff at Bythesea “it was more like a garden out of the Arabian Nights which had been called into being one night by some beneficent Djinn than a garden in matter-of-fact England.” It was “of infinite variety na d constant surprises” but characterised by its long “velvety lawns… edged with gay flowers and still gayer flowering shrubs.” Then “it turned into a formal garden, with paved paths between square grass plots, and a large fountain in the middle lined with sky-blue tiles, as if a bit of the sky had fallen to earth and had found earth so fascinating that it could not tear itself away again.” There were “sombre cloisters veiled with creepers” before it “floated back into the sunlight”, with a sunken garden, a rosery, and “a Japanese garden of streams and pagodas” and so on and so firth until “it came at last to the very centre… a huge herbaceous border so glorious in its riot of colour ….”
Read all about The Garden of Dreams in full at https://archive.org/stream/tendegreesbackw00fowlgoog#page/n6/mode/2up
Just down the road was Overstrand Hall, another, slightly later, Lutyens house, built for Lord & Lady Hillingdon : she had the famous rose named in her honour in 1910. Beatrice painted the gardens here too, as well as at the nearby Grange.
Paintings of the gardens were exhibited at Greatorex’s galleries and the Times reviewed them favourably:
But while she was obviously at home in such circles she also painted newly made gardens on small country estates, cathedral close gardens, and even some small suburban plots, like this one in Hammersmith – which is my favourite of the works I have seen – and which, according to the caption, “shows what can be done in a very small space. It belongs to Mr C.Spooner, architect, and the lady in the picture is his wife, an accomplished artist.”
From 1907 she lived with her 3 sisters at 63 Kingsfield Road, Oxhey, all highly talented women in different ways, and many of her paintings depict local scenes.
There was historic Oxhey Place with its chapel built in 1612 for Sir James Altham, a London lawyer and friend of Francis Bacon.
Five minutes walk from there was Hamper Mill (sometimes Oxhey Mill) on the Colne. And just down the road was Oxhey Grange a massive mansion built in 1876 for the Eley family
There are many more of her pictures available on line and they help show not only the usefulness of her depictions of Edwardian flower gardens in revealing planting plans and layout, but much more ’emotionally’ why Hobhouse and Woods called her “the Queen of the blazing border.”
When Beatrice Parsons died, at the age of 85, in 1955, the Times said: “As a painter of gardens in watercolour, Beatrice Parsons was probably unrivalled. Her special gift was perhaps her crisp and articulate touch in an inlay of colour which clearly defined the individual flowers without forcing them out of their context in the mass.”
Regrettably there seems to be very little more known about Parsons: just a short entry in The Dictionary of British Women Artists (by Sarah Gray, 2009) which echoes the short chapter in Penelope Hobhouse and Christopher Wood’s Painted Gardens: English Watercolours 1850-1914 (1988). I have, however, heard rumours that a biography had been planned some years back but I have not been able to track either it or the author down….so if you know anything more please let me know.