I always imagined that if I were made redundant from my job there would be one hundred and one things I’d rather do than retailing. At school my careers advisor suggested that I should study to be a fashion designer or an architect. I paid some heed, studied to be a landscape architect and didn’t enjoy it as much as I thought I would. As I got older and more restless, I fancied myself as a milliner, a photographer, a florist or a travel writer. On more than one occasion, I seriously considered opening a home lifestyle shop, retraining as a garden designer or trying my hand at television presenting. Then, not entirely out of the blue, came that golden opportunity: redundancy from the company I’d worked at for over twenty five years. What did I decide to do? Carry on retailing, albeit in a different guise. I am not sure if the obsession with buying and selling things amounts to an addiction or self harm ….. ask me in twelve months’ time. I guess we gravitate towards what we know, or play to our strengths, depending on how you view it.
Around eighteen years ago, when I was the new boy at head office, I first met a very talented product designer named Emma Turner. She and I somehow became embroiled in what retailers call ‘seasonal events’ – Mother’s Day, Easter, Halloween and suchlike. Both fairly junior at the time, we were sometimes allowed to travel with the directors and heads of buying to peruse the shops in Paris, Zurich, Chicago and New York. Over time, we both became firmly attached to Christmas, the seasonal event that demanded our attention for 365 days of the year. Rarely did a day go by when we weren’t assessing the merits of one reindeer motif over another, debating which shade of red was the most festive (answer – Pantone 200c) or travelling home on the train, covered in glitter. We didn’t always agree, but our mutual respect and admiration for each other’s skills grew as each festive season came and went.
As I am still buying, Emma is still designing. Having reached the same conclusion as me – that it was time to move on from corporate life – Emma has recently set up her own design consultancy. Knowing what she’s capable of, I expect her to be in high demand. Between the two of us we concocted hundreds of Christmas themes and thousands of seasonal products over the years. We managed to weave anything and everything into Christmas, from puffins to sloths, always curious to explore new ideas. Our handwriting became John Lewis’ handwriting. If you’ve ever bought a roll of Christmas wrapping paper or a tin containing Panettone from the department store, you are looking at Emma’s handiwork right there. We are both incredibly proud of our legacy, but happy to see it passed on to new creatives. Now Emma plans to design products and packaging for private clients, at the same time developing her own brand.
As we branch out in new directions with our work, we both need our creative outlets more than ever. Mine, of course, is gardening, Emma’s is painting. Our hobbies relate to our jobs, but stand apart; they’re liberating activities we can indulge in when the paid work gets too heavy.
Inspired by long, leisurely walks in Richmond Park during lockdown, Emma quickly reached for her paints and brushes again. Her ramblings afforded her time to observe how the light changed throughout the day, experiencing in minute detail the subtle changes in colour that are unique to each season. (If you don’t know it, Richmond Park is one of London’s eight Royal Parks, covering an area of 2500 acres, five times the size of London’s Olympic Park or three times the size of New York’s Central Park. Created by Charles I in the 17th Century, it was, and still is, known for its handsome herds of red and fallow deer.) The park is crisscrossed by a network of pathways that Emma loves to explore, each time alighting on a different perspective to capture. With the sensibility of a garden designer, Emma is drawn to paths that wander into the distance, suggesting that something intriguing lies beyond.
It was a fabulous surprise when Emma presented me with the first of two paintings of our garden last autumn. The Watch House has inspired a couple of artists, but this was the first time I’d ever been given a finished piece. Inspired by the variety of colours and textures, and focussing on my favourite tomato-red bistro set, Emma’s composition is relaxed and stylised, capturing the riotous abundance of April perfectly. This painting will be a lovely reminder of the year we broke with tradition and planted a combination of pink, red and purple tulips in the Jungle Garden – it gave us just the boost we needed during the second lockdown. In the background of Emma’s painting you can make out Rosa banksiae ‘Lutea’. The foreground is dominated by tulips ‘Continental’ and ‘Merlot’.
Subsequently, Emma has also painted the Gin & Tonic Garden. The intricate tapestry of foliage embroidered with little pops of colour appealed to her artist’s eye. The result reminds me of the Henri Rousseau paintings that have inspired me since I moved here 16 years ago – a tiger, parrot or monkey would not look out of place in the composition. All we are missing is lotus blossoms. I love the way Emma has captured familiar flowers such as Clematis florida var. florida ‘Sieboldiana’ and Pelargonium ‘Wilhelm Languth’ in the foreground. The painting is such a happy reminder of how the garden looks in its prime.
Of the compliments you can be paid as a gardener, having your garden painted is one of the greatest. Photographs are ten a penny these days – amateur ones at least – but paintings cannot be made in a hurry. I am blown away to know that someone would invest the time, energy and creativity to produce their own interpretation of what they see and feel.
Emma has started to share her paintings on Instagram and many are available to buy. She’ll go from strength to strength as her portfolio develops. I hope very much that we’ll continue to collaborate in years to come as we explore our new careers – a range of stationery for Dan Cooper Garden would be top of my list. I think what we’ve both learned from our redundancy experience is that you should never neglect what you love doing. I have carried on gardening and hopefully this will stand me in good stead for my new venture. Emma has never strayed too far from her paintbox, which might even earn her a spot at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition later this year. Keeping your passion alive might just provide the change of landscape you need, one day. TFG.
Emma can be contacted by email at [email protected]