From Isolation to Creation:
Artists Respond to a Changing World
Ellie LingGardens of the Imagination
When I was eight years old, I read The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett, and discovered the delights of the hidden enclosed garden. Gardening was something my Dad had already introduced me to, teaching me how to sow seeds and then sharing the excitement of watching what happens next, so reading The Secret Garden fed into a love of gardening which has become a defining part of my identity – so much so that after leaving art college in Leeds, I worked for a while as a gardener in the walled gardens of big country houses in Worcestershire and Ireland.
About the same time that I was reading The Secret Garden, I asked my parents to buy me my first artist’s-quality watercolour box. Soon afterwards, we went to live in South-East Asia where we encountered a wide range of cultural influences. This transformed my awareness of colour and accounts for my great love of the subtly glowing jewel-like colours of Indian and Persian painting.
I studied art in Leeds and Hereford (where I graduated with a First Class Honours degree in Illustration). And it was while on holiday in Cornwall as an Illustration student, that I came by chance across the beautiful book Gardens of the Imagination, illustrated by Peter Malone. Years after reading The Secret Garden, Gardens of the Imagination re-opened my eyes to the garden as a motif and a vehicle for symbolic meaning.
Gardens of the Imagination was to have a completely unexpected but immensely fortuitous significance for me, way beyond anything I might have suspected when I picked it up in that Cornish bookshop. Soon after that holiday, I was diagnosed with Myalgic Encephalomyelitis (M.E.) and I realised that although I was training to be an illustrator of children’s books, living with M.E. would make that particular career – with all its deadlines and demands – quite impossible. It was, in effect, my own personal “lockdown”. Too weak at first to even walk very far round my own garden, let alone do any gardening, the idea of being able to paint my own “gardens of the imagination” gave me an alternative reality to create and inhabit, an alternative reality which became a compulsive substitute for the sight and smell of a real garden. Remembering my head of department’s unexpected advice that I should “paint out of my head” (going against his usual advice to us to always rely heavily on reference material) that’s what I did…painted “gardens of the imagination”. I was hooked, and have painted nothing but gardens, part real, part imaginary, ever since.
And now, I’m happy to say, I’ve found ways of coping with the M.E. and can get back out to work with trowel and secateurs in my own very real garden. And I now have the energy to visit other people’s gardens, too, for inspiration and delight – and reference material which I then play with for my own imaginative purposes.
Gardens have long been represented in both Eastern and Western artistic traditions as an earthly paradise, offering shelter, safety, fertility, peace, pleasure and a refuge from life’s harsher moments. My paintings follow in this same tradition, presenting the garden as a theatre for many of life’s events, especially scenes of joy, surprise, intimacy and communication with nature. It was this notion of the walled garden as a place of refuge from life’s harsher moments that led me to the title for my website when I first set it up: Behind the Garden Wall (www.ellieling.co.uk).
The notion of retreating behind the garden wall to somewhere safe where one can be creative, sow seeds, plant beautiful flowers, vegetables, shrubs and trees, and where new skills can be learnt, and interesting and unexpected things happen, has become even more important under the conditions of the Coronavirus Lockdown, as many people have discovered. You don’t have to go very far into a garden for those interesting and unexpected things to happen. Being enveloped in a thick cloud of butterflies streaming towards our buddleia bush in full flower one day, while I was a few steps from our back door putting out the washing, is just that sort of unexpected garden experience, something which transforms an everyday task into a dazzling memory, the thought of which makes one smile on the greyest of days….and now it has, inevitably, become one of the paintings I’m working on, this summer.
For me, being in Lockdown has heightened my awareness of something I was starting to take for granted. Yes, I’ve been through Lockdown before – the “lockdown” of being incapacitated by M.E. – so living with that sense of isolation and limitation is quite familiar to me. And, yes, because I found a powerful – that is, creative – way of dealing with the isolation of a “lockdown” due to M.E., I’m well-equipped in the face of this new “lockdown”.
But while I’ve been very happy at home in our own garden, I’ve been very aware during this new Lockdown of how much I’ve missed the trips which I’m accustomed to make to those other gardens – gardens open to the public – which feed my sense of a visual language of gardening, and which inspire me with subjects for new paintings. Reference material gleaned from photos, books and websites just isn’t the same. So while I still value immensely the stimulus of my own imagination, my own very real garden, and the alternative reality of my “gardens of the imagination”, I’m very conscious, thanks to this new Lockdown, of just how valuable those garden trips are, also, as a form of “visual nutrition”, something that keeps my creative impulse nourished and healthy. And I suspect that most painters will tell you that they have their own particular source of “visual nutrition” which helps them flourish as productive artists, too.
At home, my studio looks out over our garden. Nesting sparrows in the bird-box fixed on the outside wall near my window, sometimes land on my window sill and peer in at me. I work on one painting at a time, although I may have ideas for the next one, which I try out on lay-out paper. But each painting is a self-contained conversation between myself and paper and watercolour pigment. And each painting is anchored in the particular season in which I’m working.
I work in many layers of watercolour, sometimes with the addition of gouache, with much of the final work being done using the drybrush technique. My own personal watercolour method has evolved to suit my subject-matter and temperament, but is also informed by insights from my love of Persian and Mughal miniatures, the compositional devices of Japanese prints, and artists as varied as Botticelli, Stanley Spencer and Andrew Wyeth.
Ideas for my paintings come from many sources: memories of my earlier days working as a gardener in walled gardens; reference photos from garden visits; a title that flashes into my mind when I’m out in a garden; and sometimes it’s simply a fleeting image or the trace of an emotional experience for which the right garden setting then emerges. My paintings also reflect, of course, my daily life experienced through the seasons in Herefordshire, and, more generally, my love of the history of garden design.
Some of my paintings are published as greetings cards by Green Pebble Cards www.greenpebble.co.uk/collections/ellie-ling ; some of my other paintings are available as cards through my own website www.ellieling.co.uk
Many of my paintings are also available through my own website (click on the ‘Gallery’ bar for different sizes) as Limited Edition giclee prints. You can also buy my Limited Edition giclee prints at Oriel CRiC, Crickhowell https://visitcrickhowell.wales/shop and at the Gower Gallery on the Mumbles in Swansea www.gowergallery.co.uk
I exhibit nationally and locally, including the Open Exhibitions of the Royal Institute of Painters in Water Colours and the Royal West of England Academy, Oriel CRiC at Crickhowell in Powys, and at other venues in Herefordshire and Worcestershire.
Please go to my own website www.ellieling.co.uk to see my full range of paintings, including those for sale, and those available as Limited Edition Giclee Prints.
Some of the Limited Edition Giclee Prints are available in more than one size. Rest your cursor on the heading “Gallery” on my home page at www.ellieling.co.uk and you’ll be able to see which sizes are available.
You can make enquiries about prices of unsold paintings by email or telephone.
Some of my paintings are published as greetings cards by Green Pebble Cards (www.greenpebble.co.uk/collections/ellie-ling) and others are self-published and are available through my own website at www.ellieling.co.uk/greeting_cards_.html.
Email address: firstname.lastname@example.org
Phone: 01981 550349 / 07789 421687
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