The Exbury Nerines
I've always loved the quote from Joyce's Ulysees, "There's nothing new under the sun". There is, in fact, so little in the world that is genuinely 'new'. So what a joy it was to document and witness the unfolding drama of the Rothchild nerines collection this autumn. In a greenhouse the size of a large field, thousands of bulbs sit dormant, sometimes for decades at a time. Then every year some of them send up shoots with astounding blooms. Unlike any other flower head I've seen, these blooms actually dazzle. The structure of their cells is multi-directional, creating what looks like glitter on the surface of their petals.
With more nerines at Exbury than in the rest of the world put together, the possibilities for innovation are limitless: cross pollination happens randomly and the results, sometimes only visible years later are a wonder. New varieties are born yearly, each with its own name and place.
My job at Exbury was to collect images for a forthcoming commission based on my Floriculture series for Lionel de Rothschild, one of four siblings who live on the estate and manage Exbury Gardens, which are open to the public. I set up a studio in the Exbury estate offices and went on a daily survey in the greenhouse to see which flowers had bloomed in the night. The colours range from whites and light pinks to deepest purples through fuschias, oranges and violets. Sometimes colours are combined in fantastical arrangements. Every day was a dose of colour therapy as I walked between rows of abundant blooms.
The studio was an informal affair - three studio lights and a Hasselblad camera. I used the exact same lighting set up as for the original Floriculture peices from The Instant Garden series. Flowers were shot from budding to drooping. At times the pollen in the studio got a little overwhelming and at one point an emergency run to the chemist for nasal spray was required!
The nerine collection was started by Lionel's grandfather, Lionel de Rothschild (1882-1942), between the wars. They are hybrids of Nerine sarniensis. Quite a few were only named after the war by his father (Edmund) and he continued with some breeding into the '50s. He sold the collection to a nursery, Blackmore & Langdon, in 1972 and they in turn sold it on in 1974. It was at this stage that the collection was split up: some went to RHS Wisley, some to Ambrose Congreve in Ireland (Ambrose created a wonderful garden in Ireland inspired by Lionel and has only relatively recently died, aged 104) and some went to Sir Peter Smithers in Switzerland.
Peter was a remarkable man, a spy, an MP, a diplomat, scholarly (a ph.d. on Addison), a photographer (5' x 4' photographs of his flowers taken with a (5" x 4") plate camera) and above all a gardener. He created a beautiful garden at Lake Lugano, Villa Morcote. His book, 'Adventures of a Gardener' is available on abebooks.com He bred the collection on in a rigorous programme and the Rothschilds at Exbury bought it back, very much with his blessing, in 1995.
While there were a few of the old plants, most of the plants they acquired at this time were his creation using Lionel de Rothschild's grandfather's. Since then, the collection has grown, partly because bulbs create more bulbs and partly because they cross-pollinate a lot so there have been new plants. The new nerines are arranged them in an artistic display each autumn in the Five Arrows Gallery in the gardens for the public to enjoy.
If you'd like to visit the gardens, Autumn and Spring are a great time to do so.