The Art of the Garden: Pierre Bonnard’s Mimosas

    21 March 2019

    In Bonnard’s dazzling ‘The Studio with Mimosas’, an energising, diagonal sweep of rich lemon fills over half the canvas. The flower-laden branches, seen through an enormous studio window, are a looming shimmer of yellow and pale green. The intensity of this brilliant blast of early spring is turned up a notch by the uprightness of the window frame: a broad panel of rose pink shot through with dancing slivers of orange and emerald.

    Painted between 1939-46, ‘The Studio with Mimosas’ is one of several works in the current, intoxicating Tate Modern exhibition which was reworked over a number of years as Bonnard tried repeatedly to capture ‘the memory’ of a scene. The painting, with its tantalising sense of the lure of the outside from the inside and the bittersweet freshness of spring, can be enjoyed both as a powerful, almost abstract play on colour and as a satisfyingly readable landscape.

    Credit: Non Morris

    The classic mimosa tree is Acacia dealbata. There is nothing more cheering on a cool English morning than a radiant jug of sweet-smelling mimosa on your kitchen table, but even more gorgeous would be to know that on a blue-skied day in early March your entire kitchen window would be filled with clouds of its clear yellow flowers. Acacia dealbata is a fast growing evergreen tree with handsome feathery blue-green leaves. In the UK it does well in coastal locations and arguably too well in London. It is planted as elegant shrub in many a Chelsea front garden but is soon billowing outside the bedroom floors. One of the loveliest ways I have seen it used is along the façade of Tapeley Park in Devon, home to the irrepressible Hector Christie. Here in this balmy suntrap with its commanding sea views and tiered Italianate gardens, mimosa is brilliantly partnered with the glossy-leaved Magnolia grandiflora which will have huge creamy lemon-scented flowers in late summer. Pairs of each tower handsomely on either side of the porticoed front door.

    My worry about Acacia dealbata in smaller gardens is this not-to be-underestimated speedy growth as it tries to reach its desired height of at least 8 metres. Your tree can be kept to size by pruning, but if you are not careful will have to go through a fairly regular, uncomfortable bad haircut phase before you can reclaim the soft form you once loved.

    A cleverer choice might be its cousin Acacia pravissima, a wonderful, small tree (up to about 4 metres) which develops a fantastic, slightly wild-limbed, semi-weeping shape made up of slender stems lined with curious triangular leaves. During winter, these stems are covered in a haze of miniature flowers buds which open in March and April into a myriad of tiny, shining yellow flower clusters. Acacia pravissima will zoom up whilst young but it responds very well to being cut back after flowering so it need never outgrow its allotted place.

    Acacia pravissima is the tree I chose to fill the enormous glass window in the sliver of garden at the back of the entrance hall at the South London Gallery Fire Station an uplifting contemporary gallery space converted from a Victorian fire station by 6a architects . The tree is strong sculptural presence throughout the year and lights up the entire entrance in spring.

    A final covetable mimosa for a sheltered spot in full sun is Acacia baileyana ‘Purpurea’ whose pale grey leaves are flushed plum-purple in summer. Happy to be hard pruned every year you can even grow this in a pot for a private window-filling burst of St Tropez in the smallest courtyard or garden.

    Where to buy:

    The Studio with Mimosas, Musée National d’Art Moderne – Centre Pompidou Photo (C) Centre Pompidou, MNAM-CCI, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais

    THE CC LAND EXHIBITION PIERRE BONNARD: The Colour of Memory continues at Tate Modern until 6th May 2019