I’ve been surprised over the five years I’ve been writing this blog how much people enjoy reading about obscure [to the modern day at least] artists from the great golden age of gardening and garden painting. Posts on Beatrice Parsons and George Elgood still get read regularly and so when I saw some pictures by their contemporary E.A.Rowe and heard how “he spent his life in passing from one garden beautiful to another to capture in each a vision of loveliness and mirror it on canvas.” I decide to investigate further…
Luckily Rowe was meticulous about keeping a record of almost everything he did. There are large numbers of his diaries, letters and notebooks still extant, held by his descendants and they reveal how tough it was or could be if you were a painter who specialised in gardens.
Ernest Arthur Rowe, usually known as Arthur, was born in 1862 in Stratford, now in the London Borough of Newham, but then still a growing suburb in Essex. Having finished 5 years of training as a lithographer, in 1884 he began studying at the Royal Institute of Painters in Water Colour where he won the Presidents Medal in 1885. Specialising in landscapes at first, by the 1890s he had also begun painting gardens. Whilst trying to start making a career as a professional artist he also attended evening classes at Lambeth School of Art and joined the London Sketch Club where he met several other painters including Beatrice Parsons and Arthur Rackham.
Studying had meant borrowing money to finance his studies and day to day living. He became the epitome of the struggling artist selling very little work for the first 4 or 5 years, earning only about a £100 a year on average – and in 1890 just £30. But gradually his reputation grew and in 1895 he sold a painting for what must have seemed to him at the time to be the princely sum of £68 and that was enough to repay the remainder of his debts.
Now he began to a series of sketching tours through southern England, concentrating on historic houses and gardens. He did not try and gain commissions but arranged visits, often through the head gardener, and painted first before trying to sweet talk the owner into buying the pictures afterwards. That pattern began to change, when in 1885 he arrived at Clovelly on the north Devon coast. It was, as now, an estate village, owned lock stock and barrel by the Hamlyns of Clovelly Court, the mansion which stood high on the hill above. Even then Clovelly, with its single incredibly steep approach road, was seen as quaint and certainly offered lots of “picturesque” views. News that an artist had booked himself into the village pub on the quayside reached Mrs Hamlyn and she asked Rowe to paint several pictures of Clovelly Court for her. [3 are apparently still there]. More importantly as far as his career was concerned the Hamlyns then introduced him to their friends including Lady Seymour at Rockingham Castle.
Suddenly Rowe was “in” and began to get commissions and sell his work. But good luck was balanced by bad. In 1895 he developed tuberculosis and the then standard treatment [if you could afford it] was clean mountain air and sanitorium care, if possible in Switzerland. Luckily Rowe now had enough money and set off for Davos in Switzerland where he spent 5 months. Bad luck once again was balanced by good luck, because whilst he was there he met and became enamoured with Sophie Slater one of his nurses, who he was later to marry.
After leaving the sanitorium Arthur headed for Italy and then Spain, sketching and painting all the time. When he finally returned to England in 1896 he decided to move away from London’s smog and eventually bought a house at Southborough, then just a village near Tunbridge Wells. His extended family went with him: widowed mother and his sister and the children of another sister who had died. The house must have been a bit crowded, especially after he finally married Sophy in 1899.
Every winter Rowe travelled to southern Europe to paint, usually leaving his wife and family at home. In Spain he sought “to gather up the elusive memories of Moorish splendour” whilst in Pompeii he marvelled at “the paradox that the lava which destroyed” had “preserved the very roots and stems of the flowers and trees flourishing in 79AD.” The garden scenes he painted there in places such as Amalfi, Ravello and Lake Maggiore were extremely popular, although he noted that, to be saleable, they had to include “a distant vista” for, he added, “people will not purchase a picture that has no beyond. It is this peep of the distance that makes a picture out of so many Italian gardens.” So seductive were these Italian views that the 1907 interviewer asked him “has God’s earth a lovelier spot..to show.” Seemingly without hesitation Rowe patriotically replied: “Yes! Home and England” before launching into a wistful story about seeing the through train to Dieppe in the distance across the lake and wishing he was in it.
By 1900 he was earning around £300 a year but by now he was making his mark on the London gallery scene. At the same time his views about art were quite traditional and he seems intolerant of more modern styles, recording for instance in 1892 that he “went to the New English Art Club in morning (disgusted!)”. [I almost headlined this post as “The original Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells”]
Rowe started to exhibit at the Royal Academy, Royal Institution for Painters in Watercolours, and the Royal Society of British Artists. He held his first solo exhibition in 1897 and between 1899 and 1913 there were 8 more one-man shows at the Dowdeswell Gallery in London, and when that closed, at the nearby Greatorex Galleries.
His exhibitions were successful and he built up a solid base of clients including Queen Alexandra, Princess Mary of Teck, [the wife of the future George V] and Samuel Reynolds Hole, the Dean of Rochester. He had, it seems, first encountered Queen Alexandra at Hampton Court while painting in the gardens there “under an old umbrella and clad in old leggings and cape”.
A party passed by and stopped to admire his work but as was his custom he ignored them and carried on painting. It was of course the Queen and some of her friends and eventually she is given the picture that he was working on and later visited the gallery and bought several more works.
He also secured work illustrating books, such as Thomas Mawson’s Art & Craft of garden Making which had 5 colour plates by him, and Walter Wright’s Hardy Perennials where his work appeared alongside that of Beatrice Parsons. There were illustrations in popular magazines such as Leisure Hour and Sunday at Home as well as the design magazine The Studio. There were postcards and even pictures for estate agents.
All this meant that Arthur soon had enough money to design and build a pair of Tudor style houses at the nearby village of Rusthall, one of which he sold and other of which he moved into himself just before the interview of 1907. He named it Ravallo after the Italian resort although that seems an oddly exotic name for such a traditionally English looking half-timbered house.
It fulfilled “the dreams of his boyhood when he would walk miles to see an old timber house surrounded by some gardens also of ancient lineage.” He ornamented with items that he picked up in his travels: a bronze Medici-style door knocker from Sicily, some glazed tiles from Granada and door hinges from the Italian lakes.
In 1907 the garden at Ravallo was only recently laid out “but already shows itself possessed of a distinct individuality, and gives promise of future glory, a glory after the manner of gardens of the Italian Renaissance.” Rowe’s gardens were to be the subject of many paintings, while the house itself also acted as a gallery. To give the gardens the Italian flavour he so loved, he “called in numerous terra-cotta bowls and jars and vases, some 18 or 20 inches high that had already done duty in bringing oil from Tuscany..and which have… become beautifully mellowed by exposure to the weather.”
Arthur’s diaries and appointment books record the exact dates he worked at different sites, and show that he travelled the length and breadth of Britain, He admired and revered all old formal gardens for their “well-ordered classical restraint” but also because within that “there is a still a place for the lavish blossoming of nature unarranged.” He especially admired those with well maintained “quaintly cut yew hedges. Not everyone sees beauty in a clipped yew hedge; but I’ve never known anyone who has lived for a long time with hedges so cut without becoming a convert.” Amongst the places he especially loved and worked were Campsea Ashe, Levens, Penshurst, and Compton Wynyates which were all recovering from years of neglect. Indeed at Hatfield and Montacute his paintings of the gardens were so detailed that they have been used to help their reconstruction.
When war broke out in 1914 Rowe found his market drying up because art could not compete with the war effort. He was unable to go on his usual European tours, and was unable to enlist because of his TB. Very quickly he found himself without an income and had to sell Ravallo, moving back into a small rented terraced house in Tunbridge Wells .
Things recovered somewhat after 1918, particularly as his first patrons the Hamlyns stepped in and helped find some new commissions for him. These included some pictures of Chequers for Lord Lee in 1918/9 and several still hang there. The royal family too seems to have come to his aid, buying a lot of pictures at his exhibition in 1919.
Once the war was over he could also resume his travels and a trip to Italy in 1920 resulted in the sale of a series of pictures to Lord Astor at Hever Castle. But Rowe’s health was under strain, TB returned and he died in Tunbridge Wells in January 1922 aged 60. As so often happens his reputation swiftly faded. His remaining works were shown in a memorial exhibition in 1925 but attracted little interest and low prices.
Arthur disappeared from public memory and remained forgotten for the next 50 years or so, until the revival of interest in in Edwardian gardens in the 1980s meant his work was rediscovered. He featured for example in Victorian Flower Gardens by Andrew Clayton-Payne and Brent Elliott in 1988, and then again in Painted Gardens by Penelope Hobhouse and Christopher Wood in 1991. There was even an exhibition “Royal Gardens of England” at Sandringham in 1989 which included 4 of his works owned by the royal family. Its thought that about 1000 of his paintings survive and are sought after, so check your attics now! And if you want to know more take a look at his biography.