The Art of the Garden: Van Gogh’s sunflowers

    24 April 2019

    ‘I’m painting with the gusto of a Marseillais eating bouillabaisse, which won’t surprise you when it’s a question of painting large SUNFLOWERS’ wrote Vincent Van Gogh to his brother, Theo, in the summer of 1888. It was the third week of August and he was working from sunrise every day on what he hoped would be a series of a dozen panels, each a simple composition of sunflowers in an earthenware vase, to welcome his fellow painter Paul Gauguin and mark the beginning of a new artistic community in the south of France.

    The powerful Van Gogh and Britain exhibition at Tate Britain keeps you waiting before you get a chance to see ‘Sunflowers’, one of five cherished and exuberant sunflower paintings by the artist now spread out in museums around the world. It is a refreshing and enriching journey, with its emphasis on Van Gogh’s passion for recording real life (he was never without a Dickens novel in his pocket) and the way he was directly influenced by the years he spend in England. He admired the glimmering calm of Whistler’s ‘Nocturne: Grey and Gold Westminster Bridge’, for example, going on to produce the fizzing ‘Starry Night on the Rhone’ a decade later on his return to France.

    It is a privilege to arrive before ‘Sunflowers’ with fresh eyes. I am amazed and delighted to notice, as if for the first time, the luminous quality of the yellow background, the soft ochre plumpness of the flower heads, the sudden softness of fading petals, and the enduring energy of the green sepals which form jagged collars at the base of each flower. As art critic Roger Fry wrote in 1910, ‘Modern European art has always mistreated flowers, dealing with them at best as aids to sentimentality until Van Gogh saw … the arrogant, spirit that inhabits the sunflower’.

    This glorious high summer feistiness can be channelled in a hundred different ways. You can go for sheer abundance, spectacular height or subtle, architectural glamour. Now is the time to order seeds to plant when the soil has warmed up.

    I have a soft spot for a scattered battalion of classic yellow five footers soaring amongst vegetables in a kitchen garden or allotment – the broad-faced, ‘Valentine’ is the perfect choice here. For a greater spectacle, there is a battle between sunflowers with names like ‘Titan’ and ‘Sunzilla’. Go perhaps for ‘Giraffe’ which was painstakingly bred over forty years by plantswoman, Victoria Wakefield and if well fed and watered might reach fourteen feet.

    I have an enduring memory of a quietly radiant stand of ivory sunflowers with chocolate centres against a clipped yew hedge at Great Dixter in East Sussex – ‘Coconut Ice’ would be perfect to recreate this. And there are gorgeous, smaller-flowered sunflowers with branching stems that are prolific enough for regular picking, but airy enough for a border too. For a pale palette, I recommend the almost translucent ‘Vanilla Ice’ and for a velvety red, the reliable ‘Claret’. The shorter ‘Ms Mars’ works well in a container and its fiery, pink-flushed petals look wonderful scattered over a salad.

    The shaggy, pompom-headed sunflowers in Van Gogh’s painting are in fact double sunflowers. ‘Teddy Bear’ is cuddly and popular – although the description ‘very dwarf’’ is unsettling. Van Gogh was excited by the sheer scale of the flowers he was painting and would surely have preferred the handsome ‘Sun King’ which reaches six or seven feet and has large, fully doubleflowers in a rich golden yellow. Jug after jug of glorious sunflowers for the price of a packet of seeds.

    Sun King sunflower

    Buy seeds from:

    Visit and view:

    Great Dixter House and Gardens, the family home of gardener and gardening writer Christopher Lloyd

    The EY Exhibition: Van Gogh and Britain is at Tate Britain until 11 August 2019

    For more Van Gogh: Julian Schnabel’s biopic on Van Gogh’s final years in Arles, France is out now.