Painterly Photographs of Solitary Flower Stems

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Bengal Rose (Rosa x odorata ‘Bengal Crimson’), Chelsea Physic GardenPhotography by Kate Friend

Kate Friend’s latest series, capturing cuttings from England’s famed gardens, appears simple – but invites a closer look

Kate Friend’s latest photography series has a seemingly simple premise: single plant stems, posed in ceramic and glass vessels, are set against block colour backgrounds. Simple at first glance, but they bear closer inspection.

The Botanical Portraits, currently on show at London’s Garden Museum, are the result of a random flash of inspiration. “On a visit to Kew Gardens last winter I was given a perfect sprig of rose hips,” Friend recalls. “At home, I put the stem in a small green ceramic vase and photographed it. The image felt very satisfying.”

From this literal green shoot came the larger idea – Friend got in touch with head gardeners at Great Dixter, Houghton Hall, Fern Verrow and the Chelsea Physic Garden to see if they would provide cuttings. The spring and summer of 2017 were spent shooting the resulting specimens either in situ or at home.

The project did not emerge from a meticulous plan, it evolved as she went along. “There was nothing precise about the work, I was just guided by the plants I was gifted by each garden,” Friend says. “All the images were shot at different locations and at different times of day. The light plays an integral part in adjusting the tone.” 

At first the plan was to create a pictoral anthology of plants native to England still growing today. But this proved to be as complex a notion as that occupying genealogists who look to define native ‘English’ people. “Nell Jones, head gardener at Chelsea Physic Garden, explained to me that if I wanted to have plants that were ‘indigenous’ to England, I would need to restrict myself to plants that were growing on English soil before the Ice Age melted,” she says.

Her subjects – artichokes, sweetpeas, jester marigolds, a blowsy sprig of kenaf and a cluster of raspberry leaves, among others – are therefore all familiar faces, but not natives in the purist sense. “This served as a powerful reminder of how much immigration and emigration there has been to and from this piece of land,” she explains. “It demonstrates how ‘England’ is the sum of a multitude of different cultural parts. And it debunks the idea of the ‘English Country Garden’.”

Any thoughts of a clichéd overgrown English garden are instantly banished by Friend’s rigorously elegant layouts, which echo the severity found in the Japanese tradition of ‘rikka’ or ‘standing flowers’. The stems are suspended in glass bottles or vases, the latter created by ceramicists Karen Downing, Rachel Lucas Craig and Laura Huston – some specifically for the project. Muted backdrops in mustardy yellows and muddy greens add to the painterly effect of the whole. Somehow these shots of solitary stems are dramatic, mobile and alive.

Botanical Portraits by Kate Friend are on show at the Garden Museum, London, until March 18, 2018.