Will the simple pleasures of gallery going, museum meandering and garden gandering be all the sweeter after months of lockdown? It seems highly likely, and with pre-booked time slots and carefully restricted visitor numbers, the experience of seeing an exhibition in the ‘new normal’ might arguably be even better with more space and time to enjoy the exhibits.
At Waddesdon Manor – the flamboyant Renaissance style chateau built for Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild in 1874 – the lifting of lockdown on 4thJuly sees the long-delayed opening of ‘Nick Knight: Roses from my Garden’, an exhibition of Knight’s luminous, larger than life flower portraits. From the socially distanced press view (via the good offices of Zoom), it looks as though art fans and flower fanciers alike are in for a visual treat.
For an artist who is known for high profile and ground breaking filmic and photographic collaborations with fashion designers and musicians (Björk, Kanye West, Alexander McQueen and Tom Ford among them), capturing roses represents a more solitary, meditative endeavour. The process is, Knight says, ‘just a conversation between me and the rose.’
That conversation starts simply enough – nothing more elaborate than picking a single rose from the garden in the morning, placing it in a glass vase on the kitchen table and capturing it on an iPhone in daylight . Knight gradually adds in more roses to the composition and then uses a combination of Instagram filters and AI technology to transform those captures into sophisticated highly finished images.
Perfecting the composition through numerous small adjustments can take several hours – as anyone who has ever tried arranging them knows, roses are not the easiest of subjects. ‘They will wilt, some of the petals might fall off, the roses often collapse’ explains Knight.
But the visual harmonies and fragile elegance that Knight finds within these ephemeral blooms is exquisite – and made all the more so through AI’s ability to sharpen and accentuate the original capture and its Instagram twin.
Resisting the urge to photograph other flowers appears an easy task for Knight – ‘I’m monogamous to roses’ he declares. The roses themselves are carefully selected for their photographic appeal, and he grows a number of David Austin varieties in the garden of his David Chipperfield designed house in Richmond. He avoids red roses, as red prints ‘flat’ and is a difficult colour to manipulate but admits to a particular fondness for a pink rose – name unknown – that flowers throughout the season and the David Austin cultivar ‘Lark Ascending’, an apricot coloured shrub rose with semi-double flowers.
While Knight’s roses appear to ‘talk the language of painting’, and in some ways recall Dutch Old Master flower paintings, his images are in fact totally modern. Viewed close up, the surface texture and structure is unlike anything seen in previous image making says Knight, ‘and that is fundamentally exciting.’
The finished images are printed on a large scale, making these floral compositions as immersive and sensual as their subjects are in real life. With their velvet petals and heady scent, roses invite physical interaction – who can resist touching and smelling a rose – but they are also freighted with allegorical and cultural resonances. Roses are symbols of beauty and love, but Knight discerns a ‘tragic poetry’ to them too. Knight has added a further layer of contemporary meaning to his rose imagery – since early June he has been dedicating the rose images he publishes on Instagram to victims of racist brutalities.
Knight’s solitary, contemplative conversation with roses is ongoing – this series of images, begun some seven years ago, is still unfolding. And despite bringing an increased workload, lockdown has allowed him the conditions to reconnect to the natural world in other ways. As well as photographing roses, Knight has dug a kitchen garden and grown vegetables from seed, and relished the contact with the soil, ‘there is a real beauty in nature’, he says.
Roses from my Garden, Coach House Gallery, The Stables, Waddesdon, Buckinghamshire, HP18 0JH. www.waddesdon.org.uk/roses
Open 11am-5pm, Wednesday-Sunday, 4 July-25 October 2020
Exhibition admission is included free with all Waddesdon Grounds tickets
All visitors must pre-book tickets online https://waddesdon.seetickets.com/timeslots/waddesdon-grounds
Admission free National Trust, Art Fund and RHS members and under-5s.