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Above: Artist John Dyer painting in the rainforest of Borneo with endangered orangutans.

Alan Titchmarsh's Last Summer at Barleywood Painted by John Dyer

  • 7 min read

Alan Titchmarsh's Last Summer at Barleywood Painted by John Dyer

"It is rare to meet someone who has the same appreciation of atmosphere, colour, texture 
and the magic that can be created in a garden, and in John we have found someone who
understands exactly what we were trying to do." Alan Titchmarsh MBE 2002

"Look at this, this is very John Dyer" 
Alan said as he held up the most amazing and blowsy bright pink begonia in his greenhouse.

Eden's resident artist John Dyer has teamed up with the UK's best known TV Gardener Alan Titchmarsh to produce a series of paintings exploring 'Barleywood' Alan's well known and admired garden used for the BBC's Gardeners' World. 

Alan is leaving Gardeners' World and selling his house and garden in Hampshire. John Dyer the Eden Project's resident artist has been allowed into Barleywood to produce a new series of work exploring a place that is known to all gardeners but, because this is Alan's private garden, has been visited by none. 

This is the very first time that the garden has been painted by any artist and during John's time at Barleywood Alan and John have found much in common. John and Alan have a shared passion for colour and life and this has formed the basis of a unique and exciting series of paintings and a new friendship between these two creative talents. 

Alan allowed John access to every area of his garden including his now famous blue 'Pavilion' that he writes his best selling novels from.

"I was very well looked after at Barleywood and enjoyed the company of Alan and his family as I painted in this most beautiful and painterly garden. To be allowed to paint this garden in the last few weeks before it is sold is an enormous privilege and I hope that my paintings in some way will help to record for the nation one of the BBC's most famous locations" John Dyer 2002.

Painting and Planting a Shared Passion

We are not all lucky enough to see the true wonder of the world and are therefore not all tempted to dip into the rich creative palette of life and explore the many combinations of music, literature, dance, story telling, food, colour, form, texture and composition. Alan Titchmarsh however is not one of these people and his love of life and art shines through.

I often wonder what people make of me sitting in the landscape, interpreting the world and applying my paint in a way that seems so natural and necessary to me. 

My work in recent years has been with the Eden Project and the Tresco Abbey Gardens and the people that I have encountered at these very special places have left me in no doubt as to what they feel; gardeners and artists have the same view of the world and the same simple need to be connected to nature in some way, and this has been the starting point for my new friendship with Alan and his family and the resulting paintings of Barleywood. 

The same thought process kicks in if you paint or garden - I might dive for my tube of alizarin crimson whereas Alan might dig in a fantastic Begonia; we are both experimenting with our tools of the trade; colour and composition. 

The garden at Barleywood has been slowly nurtured, encouraged, planted, changed, and loved over a period of twenty years. This is Alan Tichmarsh's most personal and physical result of his visual wander lust. He has experimented, let rip, held back, whispered, shouted, cried and planted skyward to the stars.

I arrived at Barleywood via the 32 acres of Bluebell woods that join the top of the garden. The grandly titled head of estate, a Mr Bill Budd, had given me exact directions and was sure enough waiting with a friendly smile and a great cup of tea for me at the top of the garden. The experience of walking into an area you know so well but only through television coverage is always a strange one and for me this was a very strange experience like walking into a Gardeners' World programme. 

The very top of Alan's garden is given over to a large potting shed - great for eating sandwiches and having tea in, the 'boffy' which has a small kitchen in and an open sided barn and chicken run. It is all rather more farm than garden and is fenced off from the actual garden. Sue the head gardener also greeted me here before quietly going back to her careful tending of this soon to be sold garden. I asked Sue what she thought about the sale and the fact that what she was now doing was effectively for the next owners. She replied that the garden had been forced onto the natural landscape and that if it all reverted to nature and wilderness that she would be perfectly happy with that. It is this thought that makes you realise how personal a garden is - there really is nothing natural about any garden - and this particular one is totally dependant on Alan as its art director. As soon as he leaves Barleywood it will change - maybe not on day one, but over a period of time it will and this is why the timing of my visit was so meaningful.

Prior to my visit I was worried that the garden may be totally un-painterly, it is very hard to tell watching the television. I also feared that it would be full of endless TV experiments, a bit of bamboo here, a water feature there etc. Well I am glad to say that it isn't. the garden does have a grand design and the Gardeners' World experiments have been fairly well disguised in corners or behind greenhouses. I loved it; it had Alan's personality stamped on it, and when you see it working as a family garden albeit with two full time workers, both of whom are treated as family anyway, you begin to feel quite at home. 

As I painted during the week I would have ongoing conversations with Alan, his cats and dog and his family. They welcomed me into their private garden and enjoyed the realisation of my paintings as they emerged from my paints and canvas. A painting does act as a very good vehicle for conversation if the audience is in tune with the artist as it was in this case. I was amazed that Alan even ventured back home to check on the progress of one of the paintings during his filming for the next series of 'How to be a gardener' and it was small events like this during my week that made me realise that I had found one of those rare people in life that thinks and enjoys the world in the same way as myself. 

The weather wasn't very kind to me during my week at Barleywood, so the sympathy vote was firmly on my side - it manifested itself in a variety of ways from being allowed to paint from Alan's Pavilion where he writes his novels, to bags of dougnuts from Bill and a kindly umbrella spread across my painting and equipment by Alan himself.

I revisited Alan in his garden a couple of weeks later so that we could both look at the finished paintings. We ended up spending a very enjoyable afternoon discussing art and gardening amongst other things and came to the shared decision to allow this set of work to be available to the loyal followers of Gardeners' World in the form of two co-signed limited editions and through the sale of these it would have the added benefit of raising money to allow Alan to continue his support of the gardens for schools charity.

Alan and I walked back through the garden at which point he stopped; "Look at this, this is very John Dyer" Alan laughed as he held up the most amazing and blousey bright pink Begonia from his greenhouse. It is this connection between art and gardening that I feel is so important and is one that I am sure thousands if not millions of gardeners would share.

John Dyer July 2002

Alan Titchmarsh writes about John Dyer.

"Looking at your own garden through someone else's eyes is always interesting, but when the eyes belong to John Dyer then you hope that he will see something that allows him to use those vibrant colours he has on his palette.

John asked if he could spend a week painting my garden during July. He could not have chosen a worse time in terms of weather - it poured! But in spite of the rain he managed to conjure up some wonderful images.

I worried that my beds and borders would disappoint him after the floral riches of Eden and Tresco, but if that was the case he hid it well, and his canvases show nothing of the foul weather or of Barleywood's possible shortcoming's in the floral department. I kept nipping back to see him in between bursts of filming - partly to apologise for the weather, and partly because I couldn't wait to see how my garden was being translated into paint. And I wasn't disappointed.

As the week progressed, I came to know John and his style of painting rather better, and to marvel at his refreshing optimism in the face of potential meteorological disaster. I would come across him, perched on his low canvas chair, mixing his colours on paper plates and dashing in and out of the pavilion or the greenhouse to avoid the showers. And he never once became grumpy or depressed.

The result of his week with us is a wonderfully refreshing view of Barleywood, all the more poignant for Alison and me in that we are to leave here at the end of the year. But not only do we have great mementos of twenty years of gardening on our Hampshire hill, but we also have a new friend.

It is rare to meet someone who has the same appreciation of atmosphere, colour, texture and the magic that can be created in a garden, and in John we have found someone who understands exactly what we were trying to do. We'll be handing over Barleywood to a new owner, but we will gaze on John's images of our time here, and the garden we created, and shed a happy tear." 

Alan Titchmarsh MBE