by Hanna Lindon
Famous for her beautiful flower paintings, Edwardian artist Beatrice Parsons immortalised gardens across Sussex
Even if you haven’t heard of Beatrice Parsons, you might well be familiar with her work. From greetings cards to book illustrations, her charming paintings of colourful borders made her one of the most popular artists of her era. She lived in Hertfordshire most of her life and painted gardens across the south of England, but some of her most famous depictions are scenes from rural Sussex.
The trend nowadays is for art that pushes boundaries and challenges the observer, but the Edwardians had different aesthetic tastes. Parsons began painting in a period that the French called La Belle Époque. It was an era of peace, prosperity and optimism across Europe, and these traits are reflected in the popularity of idyllic garden paintings. Parsons – along with her famous contemporaries George Elgood and Ernest Rowe – was hugely in demand among the aristocracy. Queen Mary bought 30 of her paintings and several went to the Duchess of Westminster. Countless members of the great and good commissioned her to paint their gardens, from Lord and Lady Hillingdon to the Princess Royal.
Parsons’ career began at the age of 19 with an exhibition at the Royal Academy. She dabbled initially in religious and historic art, but when her work received little critical attention she turned to painting gardens. Her skill in this area soon brought her to the attention of London gallery owner Charles Dowdeswell, who arranged her first solo exhibition at Dowdeswell Gallery on New Bond Street. It was an instant hit. “A dainty talent,” said the Times review, who “treads successfully in Mr Elgood’s steps”.
Others disagreed with this assessment. Writing in The New Age in 1910, Huntly Carter said that her paintings “should appeal to the horticultural-minded and to people who care for very clean work and sunlight in patches of vivid colour. Apparently Miss Parsons sees flowers only in bright sunshine. But there are other effects, and she should seek them.”
Her biographer, art historian Susan Selwyn, has since described this opinion as unfair. Parsons was most famous for her colour-filled summer gardens, but she also painted bluebell woods, still life and gardens in all weathers and seasons. Her first solo exhibition was entitled ‘Old English Gardens (Spring, Summer, Autumn & Winter)’. “It is surprising how truly, with her limitations, Miss Parsons can suggest the mood of a season – as March softening into April in ‘Wild Daffodils, Buxted’,” said the Times.
Abbotswood in Buxted (now a retirement home but once owned by Poldark author Winston Graham) was one of the Sussex locations that supplied material for Parsons’ work. She produced a series of paintings here at the beginning of the 20th century. These show different seasons and angles, but all include an elegant white cat – perhaps a treasured pet of the property’s owner.
Other Sussex locations that feature in Parsons’ work have equally intriguing backstories. In the early 20th century she was commissioned to paint Arts and Crafts mansion Brook House, which went on to become a refuge for wartime evacuees and a prisoner of war camp. Copies hang in the entrance hall of the house and some of the originals are still owned by descendants of the family. Another of her paintings featured the Dovecote of Tudor house Stonelands – an imposing stately home originally built by the Sussex ironmasters. These paintings and many others feature in ‘Gardens of England’, a book that Parsons illustrated with characteristic skill.
Parsons had a modest domestic life despite her fame, living quietly with her three sisters in Hertfordshire. Instead of putting the proceeds of her work towards a more lavish lifestyle, she gave generously to charity and to others.
“What she earned by her art was devoted to the care of invalid members of her family, and to this end she worked up to the very end of her life, though often under great disability and in pain,” says her obituary in the Times.
Parsons’ hard work didn’t just support her family, it also secured her legacy. Her work might be considered ‘chocolate-boxy’ by modern standards, but it has a beauty and charm which is sure to stand the test of time.
All images: © bonhams