Claude Monet is the linchpin of the exhibition. The first two paintings both show the garden he had as a young man, in Argenteuil. One is by him; the one above is by his friend Pierre-Auguste Renoir, and it shows Monet painting. Gardens had become very popular in France by the time the Impressionists were painting; Pissarro and Caillebotte were also enthusiastic - not just about painting gardens, but about creating them. For Monet, of course, it was a passion which continued throughout his life.
But the exhibition is far from being just about Monet. Each room has a different theme. After Impressionist Gardens, we get International Gardens, which features paintings by John Singer Sargent, Max Liebermann, and a Spanish artist, Joaquin Sorolla, whose painting of the garden at his house in Madrid is suffused with warm pinks and reds, with heavy roses dripping from a rambler that climbs up against the terracotta wall. It's redolent with the heat of summer in Spain, but also with the oasis of shade a garden can provide.
The next room is called Gardens of Silence. There are no people in these gardens. They have an other-worldly feel to them: these are not gardens for every day. This one is by another Spanish painter, Santiago Rusinol. I found it mesmerising, with the pale, ghostly tree in the centre set against the backdrop of glowing autumnal copper and gold, which is echoed in the colour of the circle of rose bushes. Rusinol was apparently fascinated by the Alhambra and other secluded Moorish gardens in Andalucia. This garden was in Aranjuez, and it was part of a great and formerly glorious royal garden. The dramatic, hot colours contrasted with the vivid green of the foreground perhaps suggest the drama of the history of Spain, as well as its southern heat and light.
I really liked the paintings by Emil Nolde which were in the next section, Avant-gardens (Nice title!). I can't find a reproduction of any of those in the exhibition, but they had gloriously rich, vibrant colours. One was a close-up of vivid blue hyacinths, scarlet tulips, the bright green verticals of stems and leaves, and egg-yolk yellow narcissi; another had white peonies and gold and purple irises.
Gardens of Reverie was probably my least favourite room. But then we were back to Monet's Later Years at Giverny. He was still painting the same beloved garden; but now, in 1918, with the horror of the First World War coming closer and closer, he poured his pity and his horror into a painting of a weeping willow with an orange trunk. The brush strokes writhe and twist as if tortured: there is a palpable sense of pain and sadness - agony, almost. He said sadly, 'Others can fight. I can paint.'
But then, finally, we come to the massive paintings of the water-lily pool which he made after the war. And with these, there is a sense that he was expressing through paint harmony, serenity and balance restored. Paintings to gaze on. Paintings to make you feel better. Paintings to sooth the savage breast. This small picture can only hint at their beauty - if you can, do go and see the real thing!