The Garden Museum in London has hundreds of historic images of gardeners, but most are described by the director as “looking a bit battered and sad” and not one of them is black. Its newly acquired painting of a handsome man leaning on his spade looking thoughtfully into the distance is not only unique in its collection but, according to Christopher Woodward, the museum’s director, unique in British art.
The Black Gardener, originally called The Negro Gardener, was painted by Harold Gilman in 1905. The artist, a keen gardener, lived in Letchworth, Hertfordshire, the world’s first garden city, created as pioneering response to the squalor and grime of 19th-century urban Britain.
Woodward describes the subject as “a heroic figure”, a very rare full-length study of a black man who is neither servile nor in fancy dress, but also an enigma.
“We suspect this man was a model – if only because nobody in their senses ever did heavy digging barefoot in the British weather – although we may yet discover that he was a real gardener on somebody’s estate, but we know no more about him. We would love to discover his name, and we hope our visitors may be able to help when he goes on display,”
Spotted at The Guardian, full article here