No matter how many times I visit London’s Kew Gardens (and it’s a lot) every time I go I see something new. I never cease to be amazed at how somewhere so seemingly “natural” can be so innovative. But since Kew’s all about plant life tamed and put on show, perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised that it’s so cutting-edge.
I always try to catch the annual Orchid Festival, and last week provided the perfect day for this eye-popping adventure. The sun streamed into the Princess of Wales Conservatory, lighting up walls and giant bowls dripping exotic blooms. I loved the columns of vibrant colour reflected in the central pool and archways draped in flowers.
The petal paparazzi were out in force, snapping away as these showy stars strutted their stuff, flaunting their finery full force. Outside the conservatory though, nodding in the shade, much more modest flowers were also causing a stir. There may still be a nip in the air, but spring is coming and snowdrops, crocuses and even a few camellias are starting to appear.
This leads us gently into the other excitement of my visit: David Nash’s extraordinary sculptures, artfully positioned around the grounds. Nash has been doing amazing things with wood in general and whole tree trunks in particular for 40 years. He was recently invited to create new works from wood available from Kew’s tree management programme to display around the grounds alongside other pieces from his long career. One of the most exciting aspects of this show is how it makes you look at Kew’s living trees in a different, more detailed way, as if they, too, are works of art.
In addition to works around the grounds, there are dramatic pieces in Kew’s elegant buildings. They look particularly striking among the lush foliage of the Temperate House where, as Nash says: “The exciting thing for me is to see my works in the jungle. To put them among plants, which is where they come from”.
A pyramid of cork bark looks terrific in an otherwise empty conservatory and there’s a fascinating display of smaller pieces in the Shirley Sherwood Gallery of Botanical Art. The gallery also details the evolution of Nash’s career and includes photographs of other site-specific works, including a circle of living trees which the artist has bent inward to interweave and form Ash Dome.
The last thing I expected to do on a sunny day at Kew was to sit and watch a film, but I was totally riveted by Wooden Boulder, the story of a huge “rock” that Nash carved from a tree on a remote hilltop in Wales in 1978. Beginning with still photographs and developing into an exquisitely shot art film, it relates how Nash cut the huge slab of wood, tried but failed to move it downhill, how storms eventually did the job for him and how by 2003 it had reached a river and was washed out to sea. The tale began with grainy snaps of a young man in flared trousers desperately trying to dislodge this giant piece of wood and ended with beautiful – yet rather humorous – footage of his boulder bobbing on the waves of a vast seascape. It’s a wonderful comment on the artist and his life.
Orchids at Kew, until 3 March. David Nash at Kew, until 14 April.