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Celebrating Valerie Finnis

31 Oct 2020

Today we are celebrating Valerie Finnis (1924–2006), the charismatic alpine-gardener and photographer who was born on this day. We are incredibly grateful to the Finnis Scott Foundation – established from Valerie’s will – for generously supporting The Hepworth Wakefield with a grant to buy the 50,000 spring bulbs that we are now busily planting in our new garden.

This layer of early-flowering scilla, chionodoxa, puschkinia, anemones and snowdrops will carpet our free, public garden with intense swathes of blue and white every springtime. The bulbs will naturalise over the years and illuminate the dark early months with a spectacular scene of springtime cheer.

Finnis was a passionately hands-on gardener, and whilst I never had the chance to meet her, she is something of an inspiration to me. Our current project planting thousands of bulbs amongst dense perennials is no mean feat. However, I don’t imagine that Finnis would have been daunted – I am sure she would have welcomed a bulb planting mission with fortitude. For nearly 30 years, Finnis ran the Alpine Department at the famous Waterperry Horticultural School for Women and by all account she was not afraid of the repetitive physicality of gardening – wearing her dungarees, driving the tractors, double-digging and even heading out to weed the rock garden with her new husband – the celebrated art collector and gardener Sir David Scott, on the afternoon of their wedding.

In 1955 Finnis was gifted a Rolleiflex camera by the curator of Munich Botanical Garden and so began her love of photography. She started to capture pictures of the plants she grew along with characterful portraits of her friends in the gardening world. I first came to know these wonderful images through Ursula Buchan’s book, Garden People, 2007.

Finnis took horticulture very seriously, she was fiercely practical, a devoted plant breeder, with an eye for botanical detail and composition, however she also had a cheeky dose of mischief and an ability to tease high jinks into a situation. One of the things that I enjoy about her portraits is that she celebrates gardens as places for people, for living life. She captures friends in gardens with their pets, wearing outrageous hats, actively gardening, or taking a moment just to be. She plays with the notion of dressing-up and the sense that gardening is an activity for which you deliberately choose your costume.

To my mind it is no coincidence that many of the greatest gardeners, like Finnis and some of those she photographed, have been driven to communicate their love of plants through multiple art forms and through the desire to teach and encourage others. I believe there is something magical in the metamorphic beauty of gardens that makes you want to capture that and to share that feeling of wonder. For example, the painter Sir Cedric Morris, created beautiful oil paintings of the irises that he bred; Roald Dahl, a passionate gardener wove extraordinary plants into the books that he wrote; and Vita Sackville-West generously shared her garden with the public through her newspaper column, charity open days and poetry. For Finnis, teaching and photography allowed her to share her delight in plants with others. We hope that our new spring bulbs will go on to be an inspiration to visitors, artists, photographers, writers and gardeners every time they bloom.