Each month an exclusive edition run of a photograph by an artist featured in Don't Take Pictures magazine is made available for sale. Each image is printed by the artist, signed, numbered, and priced below $200.
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We are pleased to release April's print, Hillside, Waddeson Manor from Beth Dow. Read more about Dow's work below.
Purchase this print and from our print sale page.
Transcending Time: Beth Dow’s Contemplative Gardens
Like the garden designers of the 18th century, Beth Dow’s series In The Garden summons some universal, even spiritual, power, presenting brilliant garden design with her contemplative vantages and a masterful control of photographic composition and tonality. Dow’s images explore the urge to exult the natural world while simultaneously bringing it to heel. She presents these ideas as they have been harmonized in the elaborate and symbol-laden gardens of 18th-century England and Italy. Her images succeed independently from the gardens they depict because, atop this tension between man and nature, she is able to compellingly layer European history, neoclassical fascinations, and formal photographic concerns.
Dow creates, as she puts it, “pictures that have a meditative quality to reflect the spiritual urges that inspired the earliest gardens some six thousand years ago.” Beautifully manipulating and reimagining formal English and Italian gardens, her work provides a glimpse into the historical tradition of garden-making while also offering an examination of “historical concepts of paradise.”
Dow’s own form of “gardening” present to us some important moment in the composition. Time stops, and we are held, by the artful employment of light or form and shape, in some transcendental limbo. We feel both exposed and welcomed, and we are made vulnerable enough to participate in the scene before us. There is a feeling of the universal in the work; something spiritual that animates it and becomes immediately recognizable when we immerse ourselves in the images.
In her selection of gardens, Dow draws us into a rich tradition of garden architecture, highlighting the formal gardens of England and Italy where 18th-century gentry, returning from “The Grand Tour,” exhibited their learning with collections of antiquities and art. The lush and flowing formal gardens intimated, to their minds, the virtues of the Classical world. The Grand Tour, a rite of passage for any landed and educated 18th-century man, was generally a trip through France and Italy to see (and acquire) the finest art and antiquities of the ancient Roman Empire and, perhaps, to be shaped by some worldliness as well. Few journeyed as far as Turkish-controlled Greece, though most saw Rome, Venice, and Naples. The collective experiences of these men would shape Western Europe’s taste in décor, fashion, and as Dow so brilliantly illustrates, garden-making for nearly a century.
William Kent (1686–1748) was perhaps the most famous and important garden designer of the period, but Lancelot “Capability” Brown (1716–1783) is the movement’s most colorful and revered figure. Capability Brown’s ability to create John Constable-like juxtapositions of naturalistic perfection profoundly impressed the late 18th-century estates. In keeping with the art and literature of the time, these English garden designers sought to relax the formality and release some of the pressure of past gardens. Open spaces were carefully embellished with architectural elements or some whisper of the ancient world, creating a constantly evolving temple for solemn reflection and aesthetic contemplation.
The English painter J.M.W. Turner was no stranger to this gardening aesthetic and obsession. He once observed that “To select, combine and concentrate that which is beautiful in nature and admirable in art is as much the business of the landscape painter in his line as in the other departments of art,” and Beth Dow, like an 18th-century gardener whose opus she depicts, masterfully chooses which elements to juxtapose. For example, in “Temple, The Courts,” the viewer is suspended in a timeless recognition of spiritual ritual. Like a dream, we are exposed before the symbol of some ancient rite and judged before its obscured pristine glow. Dow draws our journey by placing us in the middle of an approaching path, our exit or distraction limited by the walls of moving, breathing plant-life on either side. Confrontation with the temple is unavoidable. The viewer is pushed to connect to the legacies of spiritual constructions.
This sanctifying introspection is especially apparent in works like “Young God, Sissinghurst.” In this image, grey mist floats like a wave through the silent ovation of two rows of trees. Hibernating, they bow gently before a solitary form, a stone deity who, from his pedestal, conducts a sermon for the trees. As viewers, we observe him from a broad grassy avenue that opens before him, and feel vulnerable. We are transported and transformed, having witnessed a new episode in the Sisyphean struggle between permanence and impermanence, between our ambitions to tame and our ultimate submission to the natural world.
William Wordsworth’s reflections in “Tintern Abbey,” illustrates the inevitable, if also bucolic, splendor of nature reclaiming human creation, and his words illustrate the sentiment governing Dow’s garden series:
…For I have learned
To look on nature, not as in the hour
Of thoughtless youth, but hearing oftentimes
The still, sad music of humanity,
Not harsh nor grating, though of ample power
To chasten and subdue. And I have felt
A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean, and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man,
A motion and a spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
And rolls through all things...(89-103)
In The Garden, then, highlights the serene, meditative quality of 18th-century formal gardens while pointing us toward transcendence—of time, place, and form. With her camera as a trowel and spade, Dow cuts a path to revelatory communication between the viewer and those who strode among the hedgerows and follies three centuries prior. Each angle creates a unique moment in timeless garden architecture, a moment that exists in Dow’s viewfinder even as the scene inevitably transforms in front of her. Dow’s images both honor the masterful crafting of these old places while, in pursuit of serenity, liberate the viewer from history.
This article first appeared in Issue 4.
Joe Brennan is an artist/collector working at Sotheby’s as a Union Property Handler. He lives with his wife, baby girl, and chihuahua in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn.