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Vaynor Park began as a hobby for Kate Corbett-Winder, but now forms the inspiration for her striking artwork

Gardening at Vaynor Park was at first a hobby for Kate Corbett-Winder, but now inspires her art
Gardening at Vaynor Park was at first a hobby for Kate Corbett-Winder, but now inspires her art Credit:  JAY WILLIAMS

At Vaynor Park, a 15th-century estate in north Wales, the garden borders are exploding into a painterly haze of purple salvias, lime green marjoram and silvery sea kale.

The intoxicating colours and striking shapes are the work of artist Kate Corbett-Winder, who divides her days between the garden and her studio in a former stable. “Painting and gardening fight for my time – I start feeling twitchy if I don’t paint yet if I’m finding it testing, I’ll go and weed for a bit,” she says. “It’s as if my garden is my palette.” Her third solo show, Garden Paintings, which opens at Green & Stone gallery in London in early May, captures Vaynor’s dramatic borders over last year’s long, hot summer and the cooler months that followed.

The abstract series of 30 works is a departure from the poetic Welsh landscapes that first gained Corbett-Winder recognition two decades ago. Her colours have become bolder but so too, she says, has her planting. “Shocking-pink lychnis and scarlet geums have crept in, contrasted by black sweet williams and dark elder,” she ­explains. She spends four hours each day in the ­studio and the same in the garden, tending to the ­fan-shaped rose beds, walled garden and the deep herbaceous borders, which run along the 19th-century archery lawn below the house. Yet until recently she shied away from painting the garden, even though her daughter, florist Willow Crossley, encouraged her. “I just couldn’t see how the two could go together,” she says.

Last spring, however, on a painting retreat in Devon with Robin Child, who was her art teacher at school, something triggered. “When I got back I took one look at the garden and didn’t stop painting it for nine months,” she says. “I suppose all those years I’d been creating the garden, I must have been building up to it.” From the fragile shapes of her painting Poppies, to the billowy whites of Hydrangeas and sunlight-filled July, to the wintry stalks of Rosehips, the series captures the life cycle of a garden. “I was still painting dahlias and hydrangeas in November; I love it when things start going over and become desiccated,” Corbett-Winder says. “I eventually stopped in March, when the narcissi had flowered and the camellias had coral pink buds.”

As a child Corbett-Winder did not have a garden; her father was in the Navy and the family led a nomadic life. Neither did she set out to be an artist: she enjoyed art at school and won various prizes but studied at London College of Fashion and her first job was at Vogue. “I was obsessed with fashion but I’d always take my paints on holiday,” she explains.

Her life took a different turn in 1980, however, when she moved to Wales, ­after marrying William Corbett-Winder, whose family has owned Vaynor Park for several generations. Here, she continued to write – for magazines such as House & Garden and World of Interiors and several books – and developed an interest in gardening. “It could have been quite daunting as my parents-in-law were amazing gardeners, but for the first 10 years we lived in a house over the hill and I laid out my first garden there,” she says.

Gardening at Vaynor Park was at first a hobby for Kate Corbett-Winder, but now inspires her art Credit:  JAY WILLIAMS

A woman from the village acted as her mentor, and she gained as much knowledge as she could from the garden experts she interviewed for House & Garden. “I interviewed Jane Fearnley-Whittingstall at Sudeley Castle one July and I thought, ‘I want these roses’,” she says. “I learnt a lot from local gardens such as Powis Castle and from Claire Austin’s open days. It was exciting as I was literally putting down roots.”

Willow Crossley and her two younger brothers, Ned and Tom, used to moan about the amount of time their mother spent in the garden but they’ve all inherited her creative energy. “They’re all their own bosses, which is great, but they work so hard,” ­Corbett-Winder says.

Crossley is now a floral stylist for brands including Oka and Boden and has designed the interiors of the two Cotswolds pubs she owns with her husband, Charles. She has also written a number of books on floristry. Ned, who is married to Boden stylist Sarah Corbett-Winder, set up online gift store notanotherbill.com and Tom runs the building company tambuild.com. He is married to the designer Matilda Goad.

Kate Corbett-Winder is fascinated by garden plants such as poppies, seen 
in her abstract paintings. Pictured: Meconopsis Credit:  Alex Ramsay

Crossley calls her mother daily for gardening advice and still begs carloads of hydrangeas and foliage from Vaynor when she’s working on a wedding. “Willow used to plead with me to put down my secateurs but now she is as ­obsessed as I am,” says Corbett-Winder, who has five grandchildren. “She’s writing a new book about the healing power of being outside. I hope I’ve encouraged this in her: to stop, look up and notice what’s around you, even when you’re very busy.”

It was on a family holiday on Tresco in the Isles of Scilly in the early Nineties that Corbett-Winder first contemplated becoming an artist. “I was sketching with pastels and the people who own the island asked if I’d like to hang some of my pieces in the gallery,” she explains. “I started selling them, which was so exciting.” After that, painting gradually began to eclipse writing as her major interest. Inspired by the work of Patrick Heron and the American painters Joan Mitchell and Richard Diebenkorn, she began to show her paintings locally. Then, in 2008, the Sladmore Gallery in London offered her a show and a few years later the art dealer Jonathan Clark curated an exhibition of 40 landscape paintings inspired by the Welsh landscape. Her children are always devastated by the number of red dots at her sales: “My walls are a shrine to her work,” Crossley says.

Dianthus barbatus 'Sooty' (Sweet william 'Sooty') Credit: ANDREA JONES

Corbett-Winder claims her working process is chaotic – “it’s better not to have a fixed plan ever and it’s the same for gardening,” she says – but an enormous hardback notebook in her studio, bearing the botanical plant names and colour mixes used in each painting, suggests that there is method behind her creativity. In the garden, too, her artist’s eye is constantly scrutinising the beds and woodland garden and she often moves things – most recently some Erythronium ‘Pagoda’ (dog’s tooth violets) from the border to the woodland garden, which is filled with rare rhododendrons, ­hellebores and star-shaped anemones. She plants as she paints, in rhythmic blocks, to ensure that plants weave seamlessly into each other.

“I’ve resisted grasses because here everything is measured up against the landscape beyond, so they can look contrived,” she says. “I like things to look as though they arrived here naturally: foxgloves, honesty, bluebells, snowdrops, and daffodils on a bank, rather than in a border.” In the walled garden, overlooked by a herd of sheep, is a “holding pen” for plants she’s ­unsure about. “It’s often really joyful in summer because it’s totally unrehearsed,” she says.

Every June the Vaynor Gardens open to the public in aid of Marie Curie. “I have a stall selling old moss roses that we dig up and pot, old-fashioned pelargoniums, and valerian that grows in the gravel in the drive,” Corbett-Winder says. The garden is at its best in early July, but she keeps working in it until the last dahlia has succumbed to frost.

Vaynor Park in Powys Credit: JAY WILLIAMS

When Willow married at Vaynor in September 2007, Corbett-Winder had stocked the cutting garden with white hydrangeas, Iceberg and Margaret Merril roses and white sweet peas, which were a headache to grow.

“Willow wanted everything to be white and she banned dahlias but now she can’t get enough of them,” she sighs. “That is what happens when you take up gardening.”

The garden at Vaynor Park will be open on Sunday June 23, in aid of Marie Curie, 2pm-6pm. 
Garden Paintings is at Green 
& Stone Gallery, May 9-21 (greenandstone.com/gallery)