Siân Davey’s Secret Garden

BY Jessica Shearer, July 1, 2024

One can’t help, when thinking of gardens, to think of the garden. Eden has haunted Western cultures for millennia, representing both what we have lost and the promise of what we might again attain if we behave. The story also lays the groundwork for some of our most frustratingly pervasive stereotypes about women: that they are sly and grasping, that they will – wittingly or not – enter into cahoots with evil and lead you astray. 

How interesting, then, to imagine what could happen when a woman – rather than getting you forcibly ejected from a garden – invites you into one. What might you find? How would you behave? With her new book, The Garden, released earlier this spring by Trolley Books, UK-based photographer Siân Davey provides some answers to those questions. In 80 color portraits, Davey has brought her Eden quite literally down to earth: she keeps her compositions low and close – there’s little to no sky in the vast majority of the shots – documenting an exuberant, untamed, wholly terrestrial sanctuary where her subjects are free to experiment and play. (A selection of the work will be on view at Michael Hoppen Gallery when the group show Outside Inside opens July 15; the gallery will also show the work in Tokyo, at Studio 35 Minutes, beginning August 15.)

Siân Davey, The Garden V, 2022. Courtesy the artist and Michael Hoppen Gallery

Conceived during a time of familial crisis and executed during the pandemic, the three-year project was devised by Davey’s adult son Luke, who had recently returned home from a retreat at a Buddhist monastery. He suggested they turn the backyard of their rented home in Devon – situated on the estate of the medieval Dartington Hall – into a wild mess of flowers. Together they cleared out ten years of weedy growth and planted native flowers to create a paradise so eye-catching that passersby would want to enter and reveal themselves to Davey’s camera. It worked. The 112 pages that make up The Garden depict the people – neighbors, travelers, strangers, and friends – who crossed over the Daveys’ low stone wall and into an eruption of blooming color. With only a brief introduction by Davey and a lovely prose-poem of an afterword by writer and curator Jennifer Higgie, the book is dominated by the large, lush photographs, both posed and candid. In one, a copper-headed, sylphic young woman gazes easy and direct into the lens, her thumbs hooked into the waistband of her pink cotton skirt as she stands surrounded by poppies, cornflowers, and a weary sunflower that appears to track her as if she were the great star itself. In another, an expectant mother giggles on a velvet lounge chair that has been nestled among dahlias the color of apricots. Decked out in only her underwear and a pale-blue tweed jacket, she cradles her taut belly in delight.

She’s not the only one to respond to the garden with a desire to disrobe. About a quarter of those pictured in The Garden are at least partially nude, a decision that Davey has shared was made by the sitters, rather than at her request. That they never appear lascivious is a testament to Davey’s skill; in many, she’s cropped her subjects at the ankles or knees. They appear to be growing along with the flowers, rather than plopped among them, a decision that robs the shots of any gratuitous sexiness to articulate what a naked body really is: an animal in its natural habitat. 

Siân Davey, The Garden IX, 2023. Courtesy the artist and Michael Hoppen Gallery

Davey seems acutely aware of the liberating effect the garden has on her visitors, tapping into it much the same way she accessed her close family ties in her 2018 book, Martha, which captured the teen years of her step-daughter, and the 2015 Looking for Alice, a tender portrayal of her youngest daughter, who was born with Down Syndrome. Years as a practicing psychotherapist has equipped her with the ability to press that intimacy even further; she knows how to read bodies to discover the emotions they hold and then position them in the frame in a way that offers an antidote. The anxious appear at ease, the tough appear joyful, the small appear grand.    

You can see the alchemy play out in the book’s accompanying short film, shot on 16mm and Super 8 by Dylan Friese-Greene and freely available on Davey’s website. There, a man whose gaze I felt to be particularly quiet and confident in Davey’s photograph is seen struggling to master his emotions. Shirtless and shoeless, his bare chest and arms marked with tattoos, he wrings his hands and taps his feet as he waits for the shutter to blink. When he swallows, his throat flutters, and yet there on the page he couldn’t be more composed. His hands are relaxed, and his long, flint-grey hair is resting easily against the high back of a brocade armchair. There is a daisy at his left elbow. 

The book features no sections or names or identifiers of any kind, so you would be excused if you weren’t aware that Davey shoots on film, though the way the light gathers soft and fractured about the lupines and meadowsweet might give it away. You couldn’t be expected to know that the dark-haired girl clasped by her light-haired mother was contending with Rett Syndrome, a neurological disorder, or whether the woman gripping her cobalt shawl has closed her eyes in pain or sadness or simply to better hear the wind. 

Siân Davey, The Garden XXIII, 2023. Courtesy the artist and Michael Hoppen Gallery

And it’s in these richer – and perhaps more difficult – renderings that Davey’s garden, to my mind, surpasses Eden, a land that promises no pains or sorrows, no past or future, no knowledge of any kind. In Devon, the garden doesn’t erase your history, but rather takes you exactly as you are. I see it, and myself, in the woman who stands tall among poppies and pink coneflowers, clad in only her underwear, a necklace and a practical bob haircut. There is a large, taut scar where her right breast had been. I have a similar scar, and can recognize the desire to bare it to the sun and breeze, and know just how hard someone (or something) would have to struggle to take this mark, and the history it holds, away from me. 

Which is not to say that I’d expect people to exit Davey’s garden unchanged. The images capture not only a convergence of body and space, human-life and plant-life, but also loosens the categories that keep us bound up in negotiations with the world: race, ability, gender, age. Indeed, the photos of children often appear more serious than those of adults: in one, a young girl sits akimbo in a tufted armchair as if ready to hear out some tiresome request; in another, two girls stand on the stone perimeter of the property, their faces tilted up to the sky. Seen through a maze of questing sunflowers, they seem at once so very high up and so very small, though Davey has shared in interviews that the wall is only two feet tall. These photographs, and so many others, illustrate her proficiency in harnessing the scale of her flowers to make heroes out of her sitters.

Siân Davey, The Garden VI, 2022. Courtesy the artist and Michael Hoppen Gallery

Perhaps my favorite portraits follow Davey’s neighbor, who entered the garden wearing – for the first time – women’s clothing. In a blonde wig, slinky pink dress, and matching heels, she skims her hand over the wispy heads of blue and yellow blossoms in one photograph; in another she’s seated on the ground, laughing and tucking her feet demurely beneath her. In yet another she’s lying quiet under a tangle of blooms, the light glinting off of her crystal necklace. She is holding herself in her own arms, and she is beautiful. 

To close the book’s introduction, Davey writes, “I am the garden. Those who enter are the garden. Without distinction, without separation.” This collapse into connection is what makes this project so special. Here, the garden does not erase that which gives you shame, but instead asks you to embrace it. You, Davey seems to say, are as beautiful as this flower. And that is more than enough.