Photography | Caroline’s Flowers


A year in flowers

Photographed at Spencers, Great Yeldham, Essex, UK

A herd of black and white cows, with the odd brown one mixed in for good measure, grazed happily, trimming the lower branches of the trees to that uniform, hovering level, so familiar in English parkland, against which the white-painted, squarish silhouette of the house in the classic English Georgian style should have jarred but, on the contrary, was perfectly complementary. At Spencers, deep in the Essex countryside, until her husband’s untimely death in March 2010, life had been pretty hunky-dory for Caroline and William Courtauld.

The previous summer, having been granted permission to take photographs in the beautiful walled garden I turned up one fine day to find Caroline, elegant in Chinese straw hat, loose top and wide-legged, linen trousers, leading a group of ladies on a tour – one of the many she took around the garden and gave tea to each summer amongst organising the jazz festival, to-ing and fro-ing between Hong Kong, where William was a banker, and Spencers, and running Château Marcoux – ‘A hill-top medieval stone house and pigeonnier with panoramic views over Southwest France’s idyllic countryside, fully renovated with a swimming pool and extensive gardens’, as it says on the website. She skipped through the colourful flowerbeds to briefly greet me, then returned to her charges. Over tea in the kitchen, my shoot over, the ladies long gone, Caroline told me a little about the history of the garden and how its renovation was an early commission for the now eminent garden designer, Tom Stuart-Smith. Caroline herself, I discovered, was a retired photographer, film-maker and writer, with several published book and films, mostly concerned with the Far East, to her credit. I remarked upon the many vases of flowers one couldn’t help noticing about the house. Neither prissy, nor overly primped – a universe away from the floral creations of the professional florist – and much like the interiors of the house, which appeared to have undergone a gradual coalescence and now embodied the spirit of its inhabitants, made no pretence to having been styled. Filled with family mementoes, a mixed collection of modern paintings, Chinese and Japanese antiques, the Courtauld’s home exuded an informal, relaxed charm. One of the key elements of her brief to Stewart Smith, Caroline explained, had been that any of the flowering plants put into the garden should be suitable for cutting and bringing into the house, so that at all times of the year, she could have it filled with flowers. During the winter months, the greenhouse, reputedly the oldest in Essex, provided exotic, potted orchids.

I wasn’t to return to begin the project I later formulated and suggested to her until February, 2010. My simple idea was to photograph one of Caroline’s vases of flowers per month, in situe, over the course of a year. However, when I returned in March, she mentioned that William, who I had not met, had become seriously ill and must return from Hong Kong. Within the space of a few weeks he tragically died. Stoic in the face of her grief and despite my protestations, explaining to me that the sale and disposal of the estate was likely to be a protracted affair, Caroline generously insisted on my continuing: allowing me free rein to take pictures of any of the flowers, wherever I found them in the house.

That summer’s jazz festival was cancelled. The property, broken up and being sold off, William and Caroline’s two daughters and their families who lived in cottages on the fringes of the estate, moved out later in the year. After a few false starts, the sale of the main house was eventually agreed in spring 2011. Having returned, on successive visits – keeping a low profile while estate agents and valuers, clip boards in hand, photographers in tow, pawed over the house – I was able to see the project through to completion.

Inevitably, that summer Caroline left, too. She was able to retain the property in France and has bought a house for herself in central London. It has a terrace but no garden. I hope she was able to hold on to some of her precious vases and that they are forever filled with the freshest flowers.

From top
February, 2010
June, 2010
August, 2010
November, 2010

Photographs © Pedro Silmon, 2012

Please leave a comment
Look out for The Blog’s posts on art, architecture, gardens, books, design and anything else that interests me and I think might interest you

Share this post
Facebook Twitter Linkedin

Leave a Reply