THERE can be nothing, surely, more glorious to behold than a garden in full bloom – especially as we start to recover from the Great Flood of 2015 and now shiver and sneeze in the grip of the current Big Freeze. For the increasing numbers of gardeners and garden centre visitors alike, there’s something in the experience of seeing – and smelling – nature at her most abundant that somehow lifts the spirits even in these most uneasy of times. The French Impressionist Claude Monet’s seminal series of his garden at Giverny, painted in his later life and depicting sweeps of purple irises, scarlet poppies, climbing roses and small white water lilies, was recently described as the “embodied dream of paradise” by the art writer Julian Beecroft. Even in winter, the structure and tone of leafless branches and herbaceous borders can offer up their own beauty. 
Much as we love looking at these visionary utopias, capturing on canvas or paper that ephemeral moment of perfect light on a newly-emergent hellebore, say, or dappled shading on a carpet of ferns under a forest of silver birches, is another matter altogether. I’ve often gazed in awe and respect at the most familiar and famous paintings of gardens through the ages, and can only admire how their creators managed, and continue to manage, to portray them in the impressionist, abstract, symbolist or expressionist form, in oils and watercolours or in drawings. 
Gardens, especially his own, were particularly defined by Monet, and not for nothing has he become known as the most important painter of gardens in the history of art. Some 35 examples his work in oils, some of his early period and not seen in the UK before, will be a highlight of an upcoming exhibition at the Royal Academy in London which spans the 1860s to the 1920s – a period that curator Ann Dumas says coincides with the rise of the middle-class bourgeois and gardening as a popular pastime among ordinary folk, which in turn gave rise to a blossoming of “private little paradises” for everyone and a consequential explosion of garden nurseries and journals, and the freedom for all artists, not just those aristocrats who painted royal gardens, to indulge in capturing them. Gardens became all the more popular as industrialisation loomed along with the creation of the modern city and the loss of much civic greenery.
“In that period there were a huge number of plants available to the public through exploration and the invention of the glasshouse allowed for the growing of exotic plants and hybridisation of new flowers in more varied shapes, sizes and colours,” she says. “Monet was special because he became a horticulturalist and the canvases of his water garden painted in the last decade of his life are the ultimate expression of the symbiosis between his gardens and his art. No other artist was as serious a gardener or as knowledgeable.”
Monet’s Giverny paintings weren’t just a reflection of nature’s idyll, though. They were his personal response to the mass tragedy of the First World War, and he painted to the sound of guns.
The era’s fascination with gardens, and the exhibition’s revelation of how many painters of the time were serious gardeners, is not confined to Impressionism. The exhibition, which took four years to put together, includes works (all in oil) by Post-Impressionist and Avant-Garde artists of the 20th century and contains some rare treats such as Monet’s monumental Agapanthus Triptych of 1916-1919, marking the first time it will have been seen in the UK, Renoir’s Monet Painting in his Garden at Argenteuil, Monet’s Le Basin Aux Nympheas, Harmonie Verte and Water Lilies; Kandinsky’s Murnau the Garden II, Bonnard’s Resting in the Garden, and works by Manet, Cassatt, Morisot, Pissarro, Cezanne, Tissot, Singer Sargent, Sorolla, Liebermann, Rusinol, Matisse, Klee, van Gogh, Klimt and Vuillard, as well as the Catalan Modernist Santiago Rusinol and German Expressionist Emil Nolde. 
Nolde is perhaps less well known but the windy seaside garden he created at Seebull, near the Danish Border, was always an inspiration to him and it dramatically altered the way he painted. 
Dumas’ own favourite is an early Monet, on loan from the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg, of his aunt’s garden in Normandy. “It depicts a rather formal garden of raised beds with red flowers and a woman in white who is possibly his cousin,” she explains. “It was from his aunt that Monet really learned to love flowers and gardens.
“The painting is also interesting from a horticultural history point of view as it’s quite a formal garden, the kind that was popular in France in the mid-19th century. This is in stark contrast with his English style garden at Giverny in his later years, which was freer, looser and more wild and natural and modern in style. It became his outdoor studio.” 
Monet became a serious horticulturalist because of his love of plants, and amassed a library of tomes on the subject. His observation that “perhaps I owe it to the flowers that I became a painter” chimes with many contemporary artists working today, including the Glasgow painter Helen Flockhart, whose intense figurative work in oils always features intricately painted foliage and flowers in their full lushness. 
They grow in the small, shaded, back garden of her town house in the city’s south side. Though crammed with geraniums, veronicas, Kashmir rowans and climbing roses for splashes of her favoured saturated colours, it’s the backdrop of highly structured foliage that is actually the main story here: euphorbia, hostas, sedums and virburnums, share space with ivy, ferns, Epimedium Sulphureum and Philadelpus. They are there, she says, to satisfy her desire for the structure and “feeling of fullness” they provide. This is particularly noticeable in a giant jagged evergreen Corsican hellebore in the corner.
She describes the garden as her “dream place” and a source of great inspiration for her work: you can spot most of her plantings in her paintings. 
Flockhart’s knowledge of plants and their Latin names is impressive, yet she first learned about them from specialist magazines and television programmes in the years when she was a “frustrated gardener without a garden” as a student at Glasgow School of Art in the 1980s. She says it takes having a garden to really learn about plants and that hers has come into her painting much more since she’s had this one.
“Everything I’ve planted here is suitable for a shaded garden and it does flower, but what pleases me most of all is foliage,” she says. “Euphorbia produces lime green bracts in spring and really shines out of the shade. I stake my hellebore, which isn’t normal, because I’m so greedy for the sight of its lime green flowers, and so that I can plant other things under it. And I really love ivy because of its shine and how it contrasts with ferns.” 
But – just as Monet’s Giverny series carries another layer of meaning beyond the garden – Flockhart says plants are not in her paintings “just to look nice”. 
“Some plants have clear associations, and there are certain reflections and meditations going on in them, like fecundity,” she says. “Pomegranates are incredibly sexual fruits, quite violent. They look as if they’re made of blood, sinew, bone and ovum. Elderberries can convey the ovaries and ova, the oriental poppy the womb, and the orchid is also sexual. 
“A lot of plants reflect my interest in fertility. In a way I’m using plants to paint the experience of the human condition.” 
Flockhart’s contemporary, the artist Marie Barbour, says she could not work if she did not have her garden – a large shaded north-facing plot at her home in the south side of Glasgow which she loves for its “gentle atmosphere and indirect light”. The daughter of gardeners, hers is planted with Japanese anenomes, clematis, sunflowers, geraniums and plenty of ferns. She’s had to learn which plants like shade, and says much of gardening is about patience. The front garden is restricted to pinks and mauves, dominated by a gorgeous big blue hydrangea – which had turned pink until the neighbours cut down the large lime tree which overlooked it.
But it’s trees that are her real passion. “I love a winter garden, because that’s when I like their silhouettes against the skyline, and I love the autumn for the colour of their leaves,” she says. “Trees have their own stories. I think about how long they have been here. I like being able to see something through nature, and enjoy Calderini’s Winter Sadness series painted in 1884. I really do prefer plants because they are more challenging than life drawing and painting. Plants are good because you can pick them up and paint them and they do last for quite a long time.”
Though she describes herself as a Realist painter, she too sees a sinister side to plants. “You can interpret them differently and they’re not necessarily just pretty-pretty. Trees have an enduring quality and lots of meaning for me. The rookery near where I used to live in Ayrshire when I was a child is very special to me, and the white hawthorn in my garden has a sweet, sickly smell that is beguiling.” When we meet she is painting violets and full of the symbols of mourning they carry in Tennyson’s late 19th-century poem, Come Into the Garden, Maud, particularly in the lines: “He sets the jewel-print of your feet/in violets blue as your eyes/to the woody hollows in which we meet/and the valleys of Paradise”. She loves nasturtiums, taking much inspiration from the 19th century French painter Henri Fantin-Latour’s still life studies.
Following a recent trip to Vienna and a visit to the Klimt Museum, she is keen to do more work in pastels with the sunflowers the artist loved so much. “They’re so beautiful, even when they die.”
Though she started out with oil paint, she now prefers watercolours and pastels because they dry more quickly and are not so dark. 
It’s true that at the very moment we look at them, whether in spring, summer or autumn, gardens are already dying. Perhaps their dual representation is what attracts us to them so. As the famous Scottish Colourist Samuel Peploe’s grandson Guy, who runs the Scottish Gallery in Edinburgh, puts it: “In some ways, a painting of flowers and plants is a memento mori. They are an eternal reminder of the fragility or shortness of life. But plants and gardens also represent regeneration and rejuvenation, the continuity of nature. What you take from it all depends on one’s mindset.”

• Painting the Modern Garden: Monet To Matisse is at the Royal Academy, London, from January 30 to April 20, 2016

Bonnets and botany: interview with milliner William Chambers 

“I see myself as an artist and sculptor as well as a milliner," says William Chambers, "and if I didn’t have my garden I wouldn’t have first-hand experience of how the flowers grow from scratch and reach the finished blooms that always feature in my collections.” 
Harrods is a Glasgow-based milliner, whose exquisite garden-inspired autumn/winter16/17 collection will be shown at London Fashion Week next month, and whose hats are stocked by Harrods, Fenwick and Fortnum & Mason in London. Judy Murray wore one of his creations to her son Andy’s recent wedding.
A lifelong lover of gardens, he has a small back garden at his Glasgow home, where his favourite flowers are deep claret/burgundy peonies. “I also love black elder leaves and white daffodils and mahonia. And I have a camellia as tall as me.” 
He makes a point of visiting public gardens everywhere he goes. The current collection of hats features sweeps of roses, hydrangeas made from turkey feathers and cheeseplant leaves made with diamond-encrusted leather. There are plastic frosted petals and clematis, all inspired by Inverewe Gardens in Poolewe, Wester Ross, as well as the “incredibly botanically accurate” Victorian glass flowers at the Harvard Natural History Museum in Boston, US. His new collection features irises and was inspired by Frances Farquharson of Braemar Castle, who was editor of Vogue and a friend of the surrealist designer Elsa Schiaparelli.
Chambers, who has a degree in textile design from the Scottish College of Textiles in Galashiels, uses plastic, leather, feathers, veiling, crystals and silk to create representation of flowers and foliage. “I try to change our concept of flowers and what we expect they should be,” he says. “There are so many permutations of what you can do with nature.
“Sometimes I think I’ll do a collection without flowers, but I never manage it.”

Edinburgh's Giverny: Guy Peploe on Elizabeth Blackadder

“Two-hundred years ago, painting someone’s garden would have been seen as trivial, and the victory of modern artists is they can paint whatever they like,” says Guy Peploe, grandson of the Scottish Colourist Samuel and director of The Scottish Gallery in Edinburgh, which for many years has exhibited the work of the Scottish botanical artist Elizabeth Blackadder, 84. “In the 150 years covered in this exhibition, artists could paint whatever they liked. No hierarchy of subjects. Anything is fit to be explored. A large number of artists have chosen to look at something as personal as the garden and make a personal response to it.
Elizabeth Blackadder is rightly considered one of this country’s greatest painters and that reputation can only be enhanced as time goes on. She is much more than just a lyrical painter of flowers, and when her life’s work is assessed in 50 years’ time there will be lots of surprises. She is a very quiet presence. She is not one who shouts ‘look at me’. She represents a different talent in painting. 
“Botanical art is very specific. Looking at plants, dissecting them to paint them, is a specialism. It’s a long way from art that’s considered great or important or significant, though that’s not to disrespect it. If you called any of the artists in this exhibition 'botanical artists' they’d turn in their graves, or send you a lawyer’s letter.
“But she has a link to them. Like Monet’s at Giverny, Elizabeth’s Edinburgh garden has also been a source of enormous inspiration for her beautifully composed floral or botanical still lifes. 
“Her garden is elegantly proportioned, a conventional English-style garden with white herbaceous borders, and lawns, a water feature and a Japanese building which is her picture store. Tulips and irises are her favourites. She is fascinated by the botanical make-up of orchids and went on trips to Indonesia and Malaysia for their rare examples.”
What’s the challenge of painting flowers? “You have to be true to the flower, celebrate its natural beauty but at same time it’s not enough just to be true. You have to add something significant, which is what Elizabeth can do in her balance of composition.
“She is not an Expressionist but a Modernist who paints from the heart in response to the beautiful environment around her.”