Succulent envy: continuing Alice Jean’s occasional series of guest blogs from garden historian Richard Aitken
‘George, I thought you’d never ask’
I gave a lecture in Adelaide recently to accompany the opening of two shows I have curated as part of the AustralianGarden History Society touring exhibition Cultivating Modernism. There was a terrific response, with standing room only at the Bradley Forum of the University of South Australia’s Hawke Centre, so much so that Gloria couldn’t get in.
Gloria is one of my funkiest colleagues and the ‘full house’ sign suggested to me that garden history is alive and well in South Australia, and that a renewed appreciation of modernist gardens and design landscapes is in the ascendant. Gloria has form in this field as the author of two terrific monographs on modernist Australian artists, KathleenSauerbier and Jacqueline Hick, so I was sorry not to have her there.
But I had the pleasure recently of working with Gloria on an article for Australian Garden History on succulent envy (amongst other things). My co-editor Christina Dyson and I had selected Gloria to participate in the Australian Garden History Society’s editorial mentoring scheme, to work up for publication a lecture originally given to The Johnston Collection as part of TheGarden of Ideas exhibition and lecture series.
Gloria’s topic was the modernist interior, with a focus on the fascination for cacti and other succulents. ‘Make friends with the cactus’ she reminded us in the title of her article (quoting another unsung Australian modernist, Adrian Feint, writing in The Home magazine in 1928). Flower painting and interior arrangements allowed experimentation in the modernist interior, noted Gloria, and the spare crystalline forms of cacti were particularly appealing to interwar and postwar generations of floral artists.
The stark forms of these plants looked back to a primitive past, one that resonated with modernists keen to airbrush out any link with ‘decadent’ stylistic precedents. The same spare, primeval quality of many Australian plants also pervaded a modernist appreciation of local flora, especially the geometric beauty of banksias and bottlebrushes with their strong cylindrical shape and severe leaves: think Margaret Preston.
And so Gloria continued, linking the paintings of Thea Proctor and Adrian Feint (in contrast to acknowledged traditionalists such as Hans Heysen) with advances in floral art, led on one hand by British florist Constance Spry, and the adoption of a diluted orientalism on the other. It’s all fascinating stuff and these impulses have governed the ongoing floral festival at Adelaide’s Carrick Hill, Looking Glorious. Now I wonder if Gloria had anything to do with that?