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Alan Titchmarsh, Renaissance man

22 October 2021

Introducing Rakewell, Apollo’s wandering eye on the art world. Look out for regular posts taking a rakish perspective on art and museum stories.

The news this week that Alan Titchmarsh has been appointed president of the Garden Museum in London has encouraged your correspondent to do a little digging. The one-time presenter of Gardeners’ World and Ground Force certainly knows a thing or two about horticulture – but what does he know about art and museums?

Rather a lot, it turns out. Titchmarsh dabbles in drawing himself; he illustrated his own book of flower poems, published last year, and chairs the Works of Art Committee at the Atheneum Club in London.

As the author of no fewer than 11 romantic novels, he has also taken the opportunity to explore art history in prose. A scene in Folly (2009) – the saga of star-crossed love between Jamie Ballantyne and Artemis King, whose families have long been feuding – introduces a gaggle of art students to none other than Alfred Munnings, the English horse-painter extraordinaire, whom Titchmarsh characterises as having ‘fine yet craggy features’ and ‘a faintly patrician air’. Munnings has just finished a painting of the Newmarket Racecourse; he and the students fondly discuss George Stubbs’ Anatomy of the Horse (1766), but Munnings bristles at mention of Stanley Spencer. ‘Bloody modernists. Absolute junk.’

Munnings’ opinion, of course, not Titchmarsh’s – though Rakewell is curious about Titchmarsh’s own tastes. Well, curious enough to watch an online discussion with the dealer Philip Mould in which they present their favourite flower paintings. It’s billed as a sparring match – though the closest they come to disagreement is over John Singer Sargent’s sentimental Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose (for Titchmarsh, the one painting that ‘haunts me’; for Mould, ‘a bit much’.) Elsewhere, there is consensus over the delightfulness of everyone from Raphael and Botticelli to Millais and Cedric Morris. Forget about green fingers – the Garden Museum is in safe hands, it seems.