|Eric Ravilious, Greenhouse: Cyclamen and Tomatoes, 1935 (Tate)|
Ravilious stumbled upon this horticultural treasure while exploring the village of Firle, one of eight greenhouses concealed within a walled garden built to supply Firle Place with fresh produce. Along the walls grew espaliered fruit trees, including the celebrated greengages first introduced to Britain in the eighteenth century by Sir William Gage, while the hothouses included a mushroom house and a rare Victorian strawberry house in which plants grew in the warm air close to the roof and were lowered by pulley for picking.
This fabulous kitchen garden was watched over by the bearded head gardener, Mr Humphreys, who had, as a young man, travelled up the Amazon on a journey of botanical discovery. Ravilious befriended him and went on to paint several of the greenhouses, creating a monument to these elegant structures.
You can buy tomatoes from the same greenhouse today, from a stall across from the Firle Stores, though the rest have all but disappeared. In 1944 a Spitfire brought down a doodlebug nearby and the resulting explosion shattered every pane of glass in the village; the walled garden never fully recovered. The great storm of October 1987 caused further destruction, plucking whole polytunnels from the ground and spiriting them away.
But this one greenhouse survives, lovingly maintained and tended by Firle native Jim Piper. He remembers what the garden was like when he was a boy, when his mother was nurse to the Gage family, but though in his seventies he is too young to remember Mr Humphreys. He does, however, tell a story of the venerable botanist’s old age. Old-fashioned in dress and outlook Mr Humphreys was the object of good-natured taunts from village lads, delivered from the safety of the churchyard beyond the garden wall.
‘None of you buggers knows anything about hard work,’ he liked to retort, ‘But when I snuff it you’ll have to work bloody hard because I’m going under that yew tree.’
Sure enough his grave can be found only yards from the garden, in the tough tangle of roots beneath the churchyard yew.
This is an excerpt from 'Ravilious in Pictures: Sussex and the Downs', published by The Mainstone Press. The painting is currently on show at Dulwich Picture Gallery. Meanwhile, Laura Freeman has dug up further info on the Firle greenhouses, which you can read about here.