The art of gardening with artist Bella Hoare



Artist Bella Hoare’s vivid, thriving garden in Wiltshire explores the intersection of art and nature

words Miriam Methuen-Jones

Bella Hoare has lived a fascinating life and it shows in her art and the way she speaks. She’s passionate about so many different things, and is generous enough to share those passions.

Her first solo exhibition, A Different Green, features colourful oil portraits of five women from The Glasshouse, a Kent-based social enterprise offering horticultural training to women in prison.

Her incredible garden at Gasper Cottage (on the Stourhead estate in Wiltshire), meanwhile, is opened every year for the National Garden Scheme.

“I grew up about a mile away from where I now live,” says Bella. “I had a childhood running around playing in the woods. I was pretty hopeless at school but managed to scrape a degree and started to work in the City.

“Then my first husband, who was half-Russian, suggested we move to Moscow. We did, I learned Russian and got a job; we were there for about six years and had a great time. We came back in 2000 to ensure my young son (born in 1997) could learn English, and that’s when we moved into Gasper Cottage.”

The front garden is full of flowers

The house – a Grade II-listed building from the 1680s – had fallen into disrepair, as had the garden. “The house still had loads of its original features intact but there wasn’t much of a garden. I had a leftover veg patch, a broken greenhouse and a half-dead cherry tree to work with. Oh, and a beech hedge!” The hedge survived, but everything else has been removed or changed.

“When I started, I didn’t know a pelargonium from a petunia,” says Bella with a laugh. “Then, my sister-in-law introduced me to dahlias. They were my entry-level drug into the whole gardening addiction. I grew some for the village show and then one thing led to another… I was buying gardening magazines, reading books, visiting other gardens. I was hooked.”

To start off with, she hired a string of gardeners to come in for half a day a week to help out, and she did the rest of the work herself: no small feat, given the garden covers an acre and a half.

“But then I did my back in and could do very little. Seeing the garden in a state was really depressing, so I made the leap and hired a full-time gardener, Jack [Clutterbuck]. He’s the best thing that’s ever happened to the garden; he’s got all the horticultural knowledge and expertise that I don’t have. He can take my ideas and make them a reality.”

An incredible amount of work goes into this garden. Jack propagates about a thousand annuals a year. The front garden is full of flowers: euphorbias, hellebores, delphiniums and larkspur. “All that kind of floaty stuff – there’s nothing too modern.”

The only bit of lawn left is a “weird sort of apostrophe, blobshaped” with brick edging and borders of catmint and poppies that jump up early in the year. Further round the house is a
semicircle of terrace with views out across the hills and into the orchard.

A Bridget McCrum sculpture sits among apple trees, and there’s a wildlife pond at the far end. Bella is developing zones of forest garden at the edges of the orchard. “The aim is for it to feel like an opening in woodland that happens to have apple trees.”

One crowd-pleasing aspect of the garden is the result of her second husband’s interests (the first sadly died in 2008). “He is equally noisy and vociferous – I obviously like noisy husbands! When we were going out, it was all rock bands and sports cars; after we married, there were model railway magazines showing up at the door. What happened there?” she laughs. So she has graciously given over part of the garden to a model railway whose trains actually run on steam.

New steps lead over the railway (“like a level crossing!”) and into the garden by Bella’s art studio. Here, the planting is all deep purples, reds and vivid pinks. Having a dedicated space for painting has allowed her to work on a larger scale (some boards at her upcoming exhibition are two metres high) and allowed her room for free play.

“It’s curiously not dissimilar to gardening,” she says of her artistic process. “There’s lots of design and thinking, but then there’s also a lot that happens when you’re not looking. It’s chaos versus control.”

Does she have any advice for budding gardeners? She pauses then offers this gem: “Buy what you love, and expect it to die. And don’t let that stop you! Try something else. Just try. It’s amazing how resilient things are.”

A Different Green, 22 May to 2 June, Oxo Tower, London

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