For more than 30 years, the celebrated garden photographer Clive Nichols has been photographing some of the world’s most beautiful gardens. Here, Clive talks to Jessica Jonzen about what makes a garden special, how lockdown made us all appreciate the importance of a garden, and shares some his favourite autumn photographs
(LEFT) ACER PALMATUM; (MIDDLE) AUTUMN AT SHEFFIELD PARK IN EAST SUSSEX; (RIGHT) VIBURNUM PLICATUM ‘POPCORN’ AT BLUEBELL ARBORETUM IN SOUTH DERBYSHIRE. IMAGES: CLIVE NICHOLS
As we crawl towards the final months of the year, one thing is certain: 2020 will go down in history as one of the most significant and unforgettable years of modern times. And while it has brought with it a previously unimaginable amount of loss and uncertainty, there have undoubtedly been positives: a reconnection with our communities, and a re-setting of our priorities. It has also been the year in which we fell back in love with our gardens, or realised the importance of having some outside space.
In the height of lockdown, there was record demand for seeds as we took to our flower beds and window boxes. There was a powerful collective instinct to create beauty and new life in the face of the chaos in the world around us. It also gave us something to do.
For the celebrated garden photographer Clive Nichols, 2020 has been the year when he’s created some of his best work. “Those first two or three weeks under lockdown were amazing – I’ve never seen light like that in England. It was very crisp, clean light – the sort you see in Corfu or Provence. I got some of the best photographs I’ve ever taken.”
(TOP) THE AUTUMN BORDER AT PETTIFERS, WARDINGTON; (MIDDLE LEFT) CLIVE NICHOLS ON LOCATION; (MIDDLE RIGHT) A COBWEB ON A DAHLIA IN THE MORNING DEW; (BOTTOM) THE KLIMT BORDER AT PETTIFERS. IMAGES: CLIVE NICHOLS
Described as ‘Britain’s best garden photographer’ by Photo Plus, Canon’s magazine, Clive Nichols has been photographing some of the world’s most beautiful gardens for more than 30 years. Usually travelling the globe photographing private gardens for clients including Condé Nast, The Sunday Times, Country Life and Nicholas Haslam, 2020’s travel restrictions clipped Clive’s wings but led him to focus on photographing English gardens, including Pettifers in his home village of Wardington in Oxfordshire, and Morton Hall in Worcestershire.
“I’ve been shooting mostly big country gardens on dreamy mornings and when the evening light drips into them. It’s definitely been a mental release for me and people seem to love the pictures we put on Instagram – it’s pure escapism,” says Clive. “People are realising that gardens are a sanctuary where they can get away from all the mainstream media nonsense and get some sanity back in their lives. It’s also a perfectly safe environment because you can potter about on your own and socially distance easily.”
Clive first discovered a love for photography while reading Geography at the University of Reading. He started out as a travel photographer, travelling everywhere from the Falklands to Hong Kong on assignment before he spotted an opportunity to work closer to home. “The photography in the gardening magazines in the early 1980s was really poor. I thought I could do better so I started taking photos of gardens. Homes & Gardens magazine bought my first set taken at Westonbirt Arboretum. The editor asked if I could do some more and it exploded from there – I’ve never looked back.”
(TOP) THE PARTERRE AT PETTIFERS WITH DAHLIAS ‘PREFERENCE’ AND ‘AMERICAN DREAM’ WITH BETULA ERMANII; (BOTTOM LEFT) ECHINACEA PURPUREA AT LADY FARM IN SOMERSET; (BOTTOM RIGHT) ACER PALMATUM AT SHEFFIELD PARK, EAST SUSSEX. IMAGES: CLIVE NICHOLS
Clive’s photography is alive with atmosphere. He captures the morning dew hanging on a cobweb like a necklace; the warm glow of the evening sun glancing through tall grasses, and shows plants and gardens in all their glory. Clive’s favourite time of day to photograph a garden is at dawn, and in the summer months he will often rise at 1am to drive 100 miles to photograph a garden at sunrise. “You have to be very reactive,” he says. “I have clients who keep a watch on their gardens and will call me to say ‘you have to come now!’ A garden can change so quickly so you need to act quickly.”
Such is Clive’s skill that he was commissioned by Country Life to photograph HRH The Prince of Wales’ private garden at Birkhall on the Balmoral estate when the Prince edited an edition of the magazine in 2013. “I was extremely lucky with the weather and conditions for the shoot and got a beautiful morning. My approach was exactly the same as shooting other gardens but the panic levels were higher!”
So what are the elements which make a garden truly special? “It’s the atmosphere of the place combined with the structure and planting, I think,” he says. “I think there are a lot of mistakes which people make, such as trying to put too many plants into their garden and it becomes a mess. Structure is so important – you want to put plants in which look good all year to give you strong bones. Then just a few highlights, like some beautiful tulips in spring and dahlias for late summer and early autumn.
(TOP) FORDE ABBEY IN DORSET IN AUTUMN; (BOTTOM LEFT) MORTON HALL IN REDDITCH; (BOTTOM RIGHT) CANADA GEESE BESIDE THE LAKE AT SHEFFIELD PARK. IMAGES: CLIVE NICHOLS
“Background foliage and the hardscaping is so important in a garden – if you get the structure right, you can play with it. I’ve just planted lots of pines in pots and containers in my own courtyard garden to give it structure and year-round interest. Also, people put silly little pots in their garden – if you think something should be a certain size, make it twice that because it will have far more impact. I’ve got quite a lot of big terracotta pots in my garden and they just look bolder.”
The rich autumnal colours in arboretums such as Westonbirt are some of Clive’s favourite to photograph, “the light is so rich and crisp and the colours are outstanding” but it is spring’s tulips which have his heart. “I love the shape of them – they’re very photogenic. There’s a garden called Kuekenhof in Holland and it’s just sensational in April and May. They plant something like 4 million bulbs – it’s mind-blowing – and you can’t take a bad photo. Unfortunately, it was closed this year because of Covid, but if you’re feeling depressed and want to be happy, go there – you cannot feel unhappy there. It’s the most amazing place.”
The importance of gardens and outside space to our mental health is well-documented, and is something which has been especially important this year. “I personally find being in a garden incredibly uplifting,” says Clive. “The adrenalin starts to flow and you feel fantastic, especially when you’ve got the place to yourself. Sometimes it feels like heaven, literally. In the early morning at Pettifers or Morton Hall, it’s almost like God is shining a light on it.” Indeed, a lot of the owners of the gardens Clive photographs cannot believe it’s theirs when they see the photographs and are inspired to get up early to witness their gardens at that magical time of day. “If you’re lucky enough to have a garden, get out in it early – it’s celestial.”
As we head into the darker months, Clive recommends seeking out one of the UK’s dedicated winter gardens such as those found at RHS Wisley in Surrey; the Cambridge Botanic Garden; Wakehurst in West Sussex; Bodnant in Wales and Anglesey Abbey in Cambridgeshire. “On a sunny day the stems of the witch hazel, cornus and rubus really shine out and the amount of colour is amazing and incredibly joyful.” And couldn’t we all use a bit more of that?
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