"John’s vivid, ‘wow’ paintings show the garden to its maximum effect."
Mike Nelhams Tresco Abbey Garden’s curator
At the same time as he was working at Eden, John made an approach to the Abbey Garden on Tresco, the second-biggest of the Isles of Scilly, which resulted in his being invited there, both times with his wife Joanne, as Artists in Residence two years running. This was a very different kind of residency from the one at Eden, as they were able to stay on the island as guests of the owners, Robert and Lucy Dorrien-Smith, and to immerse themselves fully in its unique atmosphere by both day and night. The 17-acre gardens within the ruins of a medieval Benedictine abbey were established in the 1830s by the then Lord Proprietor of the islands, Augustus Smith. Originally there were hardly any trees on the windswept island, so his first step was to build high walls and plant hedges and fast-growing belts of trees for shelter. The windbreaks, enclosures and terraces built by Augustus Smith have created a micro-climate which enables exotic plants from all over the world to thrive.
"The plants that manage to grow in the gardens are remarkable, but it is even more remarkable when compared to the natural landscape and plants of Tresco. The island has a very open feel to it, vast expanses of sea and sky, white sands only interrupted by the odd sea bird…The beach at Pentle Bay literally sparkles with light. If you dip your hand into the sand, it comes out as if covered with glitter. It is this luminosity and light that helps to make Tresco special and such an exciting place to paint."
John and Joanne were overwhelmed by their first encounter with this magical garden. ‘We painted like children in a sweet shop. It is an unbelievably beautiful place…the Abbey Garden is pure imagination and unabashed visual spectacle. Echiums towering into the sky, forests of palms, cacti and date palms grown to full size, succulents hanging from every conceivable place, colour, bright colour everywhere and birds, birds, birds.’ In the long days of late May, they could paint early in the morning before the visitors arrived, and work long into the evening as the sun went down, as well as revelling in night skies spangled with stars, undisturbed by light pollution; wherever they looked, there were exciting plant and animal subjects to paint, and the animated discussions John had with those who knew and understood the gardens and their plants only served to deepen his connection to this ‘Cornish Paradise’. Mike Nelhams, Garden Curator of Tresco Abbey Garden, who has worked there as Head Gardener since 1983, is well used to the sight of painters in the gardens – ‘you can’t go anywhere without tripping over an artist’ – but acknowledges that there is something very special about John’s interpretations. ‘This garden lends itself to his style. It…has these large exploding colour schemes; it’s full of shape…with the big succulents and the big palms. John’s vivid, ‘wow’ paintings show the garden to its maximum effect.’
"We spent the week cycling round the island exploring, while mummy and daddy set up their easels, paints and canvases for the day…Sometimes I would sit and paint with them. I love watching them work and travelling around seeing new places and painting new things."
Since their first visit in May 2001, John has been back to Tresco numerous times, sometimes with the family, sometimes on his own, but always finding an inexhaustible supply of inspiration. He is fascinated by the way the gardens sit so naturally within their wider surroundings, despite being so different.
"Robert and Lucy Dorrien-Smith very kindly agreed to host myself, and my wife and fellow artist Joanne Short, on their island of Tresco during May 2001 and again during May 2002. We were given complete access to the Abbey Gardens to facilitate our paintings and made to feel very welcome within this tiny Island community.
The Eden Project and Tresco Abbey Gardens are linked horticulturally but are very different visually. Eden offers naturalistic planting recreating specific areas of the world, but The Abbey Gardens are pure imagination and unabashed visual spectacle. They look like no other place I have ever seen.
Joanne and I first set foot on Tresco during May 2001 landing on a rather damp green island and not really knowing what to expect. However we soon felt at home and took over part of the Abbey as a temporary home, makeshift studio and painting store.
The following day was all sun and smiles. We painted like children in a sweet shop; it was delightful. Painting outside, in Cornwall, together and in an unbelievably beautiful place is what it is ali about for me. Through the process of painting, the environment slowly unravels and you gain a greater understanding of place and time.
l always meet interesting characters and see wonderful things while painting the world as it slowly drifts past the canvas. Tresco was no exception with human, plant and animal life presenting equally interesting subjects.
Echiums towering into the sky, forests of palms, cacti and date palms grown to full size, succulents hanging from every conceivable place, colour, bright colour everywhere and birds, birds, birds. It really is a 'Cornish Paradise'.
The days are long at the end of May and allow many hours of painting time, so we would start our work just after breakfast by walking out of the Abbey and straight into paradise before the gates opened. So for the first couple of hours each day the gardens were ours.
The same happened in the evening, after 4pm the gardens start to empty and between 5pm and 8pm we would paint in the glorious summer evening sun, watching the gardens in a totally undisturbed way.
Invariably during these private viewings of the gardens we would encounter Topper and Batty with Frank in hot pursuit.
Topper is a small white dog and Batty is a black Labrador who live in the Abbey while Frank is one of Tresco's finest characters. Frank, now retired, used to be a gardener at the Abbey Gardens for years and has many a tale to tell while he is on his perpetual hunt for Topper the mischievous little dog.
Every day we would be engaged in animated tales about the island and the gardens and it was these conversations that have made us feel a real connection to the place.
The plants that manage to grow in the gardens are remarkable, but it is even more remarkable when compared to the natural landscape and plants of the island.
The island has a very open feel to it, vast expanses of sea and sky, white sands only interrupted by the odd sea bird, and night skies that have fallen straight from the pages of a story book. The beach at Pentle Bay literally sparkles with light. If you dip your hand into the sand it comes out as if covered in glitter. It is this luminosity and light that helps to make Tresco special and an exciting place to paint.
Tresco has presented a challenging subject; one moment there is so much to paint that it becomes almost an impossibility and the next it presents huge open expanses of colour and space. It is however now one of my favourite subjects and as a painter I feel completely at home immersed in the glorious plants of the fantastic Abbey Gardens."
John Dyer. 2002