Arts review: Painting Paradise | Elizabeth Blackadder | Barbara Rae

Power and prestige are both on display in the fascinating images of gardens at the Queen's Gallery

A Young Man Seated Under a Tree by Isaac Oliver,  c1590-95. Picture: Contributed
A Young Man Seated Under a Tree by Isaac Oliver, c1590-95. Picture: Contributed

Painting Paradise | Rating: **** | Queen’s Gallery, Edinburgh

Elizabeth Blackadder: Decades | Rating: **** | Scottish Gallery, Edinburgh

Sign up to our daily newsletter

Barbara Rae: Return Journey | Rating: **** | Open Eye Gallery, Edinburgh

Seagulls, Fishmarket, Venice by Elizabeth Blackadder, 2002. Picture: Contributed

History Machines by Donovan & Siegel | Rating: **** | Edinburgh Printmakers

The Garden of Eden was our first paradise, but that was also a tautology. The Persian word “pairidaeza” actually means garden. Describing the miraculous gardens in the desert the Persians created as long ago as the sixth century BC and translated into Greek, it became our word “paradise.” The lovely exhibition at the Queen’s Gallery at Holyrood, Painting Paradise, hinges on this enduring link between gardening and our idea, if not always of paradise, at least of a place of peace, harmony and beauty.

The show begins with visions of exquisite gardens in the Persian style painted at the Mughal court in India in the 16th century. Something of this vision inspired Isaac Oliver’s beautiful miniature of A Young Man Seated Under a Tree. Painted in the 1590s, beyond the sitter is a formal knot garden. There is also an elaborate palace and part of the new fashion for gardens in the Renaissance was the projection of power, soft power perhaps, but power nevertheless for “gardens could enhance the prestige and status of monarchs and princes.” (These pictures are of course selected from the Royal Collection.) More figuratively perhaps the kind of Pleasure Garden with a Maze painted by Lodewijk Toeput called Pozzoserrato was itself an implicit expression of power, power to impose order, even on nature herself. In Leonard Knyff’s superb bird’s-eye view of Hampton Court from c1703, the horticultural metaphor of royal power dominates the wide landscape of the Thames. (The picture also includes the first representation of the maze that is still a feature of the palace gardens.)

An altogether different vision inspired Rembrandt’s superb Christ and St Mary Magdalene at the Tomb, the star picture of the show. Dressed as a gardener, Christ’s broad hat and white robe catch the first light of dawn as he startles Mary Magdalene grieving by the empty tomb. With typically radical insight, Rembrandt cuts through garden history to take us back to the original idea of paradise as a garden. Christ, like Adam before him, is its gardener.

Seagulls, Fishmarket, Venice by Elizabeth Blackadder, 2002. Picture: Contributed

More prosaically earthly gardens needed real gardeners and hard work. An anonymous painting of Windsor Castle is a fascinating image of a functioning, productive kitchen garden with gardeners at work, but free time enough for some as a couple of girls play on a see-saw. They remind us that gardens were also playgrounds. That was how Jean-Baptiste Pater, a follower of Watteau, painted them in a charming Fête champêtre. Gainsborough in his wonderful painting Henry, Duke of Cumberland with Anne, Duchess of Cumberland, and Lady Elizabeth Luttrell processing through a garden also reflects this dreamy vision. Gainsborough doesn’t flatter the Duke’s small stature, but the women in flowing clothes and feathery hats seem at one with the beautiful trees.

Royal procession is also the theme of St James’s Park and the Mall by an unknown artist. Painted around 1746, the Prince of Wales and his companions walk at ease among the people. Two Highland soldiers prominent in the foreground, evidently loyalist Highland troops, suggest that this is a politically inspired image of a united kingdom, a peaceful garden again after the violence of the ’Forty-Five.

It was at this time that the new style of landscape gardening replaced older, more formal garden metaphors of power and order. If the boundary between garden and wild nature is blurred, our perspective on paradise, or at least its earthly equivalent, changes completely. John Jacob Schalch’s The Gardens of Kew offers a dewy, green place where order is casual, not imposed. This merging of the human and natural order was a peculiarly British vision of the garden as reflecting our place in nature. Inspired by Claude, it fitted very well the optimism of the Age of Enlightenment.

In one of the Mughal paintings here, the artist already notes flora imported from the newly discovered Americas. Two contemporary and characteristically precise studies of plants by Leonardo show this botanical curiosity was shared in the west. Esther Inglis, patronised by the court of James VI in Scotland and in England – the first Scottish artist from whom we have a substantial body of authenticated work and also several self-portraits – specialised in botanical illustration as an exquisite illuminated manuscript demonstrates. Later, botanical illustration migrated to the applied arts, represented here by beautiful porcelain and also by jewellery. An orange blossom wreath in gold and enamel made for Queen Victoria is a masterpiece by an unknown jeweller. But the Victorian period was also the great age of horticulture as garden design swung back from the wide landscape to the intimate flower bed. For Prince Albert, at least, the wide landscape remained a place for indiscriminate slaughter, however. In Queen Victoria, Prince Albert and Victoria, Princess Royal a rather repellent painting by Landseer, he presents a heap of dead birds to his young wife while showing off his manliness, legs apart, in tights and long boots. Their daughter, little princess Victoria, seems shocked that among it all he has shot a kingfisher.

Elizabeth Blackadder, who has a minor retrospective at the Scottish Gallery, is a skilled gardener. Botany is also a familiar part of her art, but the strength of this show is to demonstrate the variety in her work, from the powerfully structured drawings and lithographs of her early years through large and much freer paintings that reveal a kinship with contemporaries like Hockney and Kitaj. Then in the seventies her work became more austere, almost abstract, before her interest in Japan suggested a way to compose freely with beautifully seen objects, simple marks, even patches of gold leaf to create a musical harmony of figure and ground. Later, she returned to big oils with conspicuous success as in Japanese Temple Shrine Interior from 1991, or the smaller but lively and informal Seagulls, Fishmarket, Venice, from 2002. At the heart of everything she does, however, is the combination of exactness of eye and delicacy of hand demonstrated in her matchless watercolours of flowers, but also of crabs and lobsters.

As a student at Edinburgh College of Art, Barbara Rae overlapped briefly with the beginning of Elizabeth Blackadder’s time as a teacher there, but Rae’s show at the Open Eye, which also has a retrospective element to it, demonstrates what a different artist she is. Though landscape is usually her starting point, and this is clearer in her earlier work, out of it she creates rhapsodic visions of light and colour. The forms she describes assume a life and significance of their own even if we still see echoes there of ploughed fields, olive groves, distant hills and, in one picture here, dockside cranes. She is particularly adept at capturing the movement of light and shadow across a landscape and so her paintings are never static, but are full of energy.

Finally, one of the most intriguing objects I have seen around the galleries is a self-printing book made by Canadian artists Matt Donovan and Hallie Siegel. Every page of solid bronze and raised type is faced by its mirror image as though the book was indeed printing itself. It is in their show History Machines at Edinburgh Printmakers, an exhibition in which they reflect in diverse ways on the present status and the future of the printed word.

• Painting Paradise until 26 February; Elizabeth Blackadder until 3 September, Barbara Rae until 31 August, History Machines until 22 October