I made it to the Impressionist gardens and back, and am now sitting at the kitchen table feeling slightly wheezy but delighted to have seen them. I was not at all sure yesterday that I'd be up to it, but by this morning I was less chilly and it was forecast to be a dry day, so I thought that if I used the tube and didn't try to walk over to the West End from Liverpool Street I'd probably be OK to stand about looking at pictures for a couple of hours. And it seemed such a shame to waste my advance ticket, when I'd been looking forward to the exhibition since Christmas when the Systems Administrator gave me the book. And it would have been very galling to try and rebook later when I was feeling better and find it had sold out. So I went, fingers tightly crossed that the trains would run smoothly.
It is a lovely exhibition, and very popular, though not actually such a crush as I'd feared it might be. A combination of Impressionist paintings and gardening is practically tailor made to fit the English psyche. Really, the only thing that could make it nicer would be if Mary Berry were to wander around the Royal Academy halls handing out slices of free cake.
There are paintings by Monet and Manet, Renoir and Pissarro, Vuillard and Bonnard, John Singer Sergeant, Kandinsky, Van Gogh, and Spanish, Scandinavian, German and American artists I'd never heard of (or at least not until I read the book). There are photographs of them cultivating their gardens. Monet was into dahlias before his Giverney days and used to go to horticultural shows with his friend Caillebotte, who was an early adopter of the domestic greenhouse. Pissarro was teased by his contemporaries for preferring to paint vegetable patches instead of flowers. Emil Nolde was a new discovery for me: his poppies glow red as furnaces. Monet's gigantic late triptych of water lilies, reunited for this exhibition from the three different American museums that bought a section each after the artist's death, is a mysterious shimmer of lilac and blue-green.
It is usually summer in the paintings. There is one garden in snow and one snowy street, and some of Monet's scenes are autumnal, but in general there are roses, peonies, azaleas, or at any rate nothing coming later in the year than hydrangeas and the dark green, heavy foliage of late summer. Maybe the artists thought that summer was what gardens were about. It is a big exhibition, there are more than a hundred and twenty works in total, and I've have happily given house room to most of them, not that the water lilies triptych would fit. It doesn't honestly explore the relationship between art and gardening in any deep way that I could discern. Domestic gardening grew more popular in the period the exhibition covers, between the 1860s and 1920s. Some artists took up gardening, but so did lots of other people who weren't artists, and some artists painted gardens, but they also painted interiors, portraits, dancers, street scenes, racecourses and so on, while other artists didn't paint gardens or painted other people's gardens without doing much gardening of their own. Gardens were a thing at the time. They got painted. It doesn't matter, the exhibition is lovely to look at.
In fact it was my second exhibition of the day, as I went to Delacroix and the rise of modern art at the National Gallery first. That wasn't the original plan. I would normally aim to fit more than one thing into a London trip, once I've taken the day to get there and forked out for the railway ticket, but as I was still feeling a bit coldy I thought I should take it easy. But the trouble with booked, timed tickets (and why I like Tate membership so much, giving the ability to swan in to temporary exhibitions without any need for booking) is that if you live outside London you have to allow for train delays, and I'd allowed an extra bit for traffic jams getting to the station, as Colchester has a new and hideous set of roadworks. In the event the only hold up was the drive to the station taking maybe five minutes more than usual, and I waited no more than a minute for the tube, so as I rumbled into Leicester Square I realised I had over two hours in hand. Two hours is too long to hang around in Costa, and I didn't want to end up wandering about Piccadilly, so spending the time in a nice warm gallery seemed a better bet.
I didn't know much about Delacroix, which was a good reason to go and find out. He was born at the very end of the eighteenth century, and was a real painters' painter, admired and collected by other artists in his lifetime and after his death in 1863. The art establishment of his day gave him a more uneven ride, at times allowing his work to grace the salons, at others rejecting it or mauling him critically. He tackled a dizzying range of subjects, experimented with colour, was more interested in expressing emotion than strictly accurate figure drawing, and was generally one of those artists who move their subject on.
Some of his major works were vast, elaborate murals for churches and civic buildings, which you have to view via short films, but they are good quality films and give you an idea of what he did. Otherwise the exhibition couples his paintings with works of other artists believed to have been influenced by him, whether his use of colour or his subject matter, and I found the comparisons utterly convincing. And as several of his admirers crop up in the RA show going to the National Gallery first was a good preparation.