July 9, 2005
At just 24, Alice Bowe is a natural-born artist – flitting between canvas and garden as she juggles two careers
She used to have a picture of herself on her website but she took it off because people said she looked improbably young, and she thought it might put potential clients off. "When I meet clients for the first time, they often think I am the assistant," she admits.
Alice the artist has a studio above the garage at her mother’s suburban house in Nottinghamshire: large abstract canvases stacked against the wall, drawings pinned up with Post-it notes-to-self ("don’t over-finish detail"), swathes of silk and boxes of sequins and embroidery threads. There are peonies in an old Thermos flask and a vase of white stocks propping open the door in the sunlight. Outside in the garden is a deep border where she experiments with planting combinations; currently she’s having a purple moment – salvias, lavender, echinops – with notes of silver (cardoon) and crimson (verbascum).
Alice the garden designer has an office in London with a professional drawing table, calculator and polished chrome bins holding rolls of drawings; northern light pours in from a big bay window. There is a portfolio of her work which includes drawings for a problematic garden, prone to regular flooding. She solved that with some carefully tilted paving for run-off and an efficient drainage system. Presumably she called in an engineer? "No, I knew how to do it."
Not fey Alice Bowe, then. Not shy either. Precocious, possibly, but not arrogant, which she fears people might say about her. "I just believe in making my own opportunities and sometimes that can come over as showing off." The colours and textures of plants inspire her painting; her planting schemes are painterly. One client commissioned an artwork and liked it so much she got Bowe to design the front garden of her house as well. Another asked her for window boxes, and then for a painting to complement them.
Art came first – with a degree from Ruskin at Oxford. At the Oxford Botanic Garden she spent hours drawing structural plants like phormium and euphorbia, in which she found echoes of the skeletons in her art classes. "Then we did a show in the Botanic Gardens and I made stylised drawings of plants on the panes of the glasshouses. It was fascinating how recognisable these abstract representations were. I can do precise botanic drawings but they don’t interest me."
After Ruskin she enrolled in a full-time course at the Oxford School of Garden Design, choosing it because of its emphasis on architecture and hard landscaping. She worked at a local hospital to support herself – "I persuaded them I could do a full-time job in three days a week" – and took herself off to RHS classes, studying at weekends to bone up on horticulture. "I did it by not having a life for a year. I worked stupidly hard, but I couldn’t see another way of doing it."
At the end of the course, she thought to work for one of the designers she admired: Dan Pearson ("I adore him but his voice is a disappointment"), Piet Oudolf or Pam Lewis. "But none of them was hiring, so I decided to set up on my own." She did a short course on the basics of business, got a book out of the library to teach herself web design, and persuaded her mother, a teacher, to invest some seed money in Alice Bowe Inc. "I am her pension," says Bowe, "and I pay her dividends in Mulberry handbags."
She has a display stand which she takes to trade shows: "People are often surprised that I’m there with a portfolio, doing business, when I’ve only recently left college." She made an early decision not to compromise: "I don’t accept commissions which don’t fit with my brand image and I’m always up-front about the budget. I’ve lost several potential clients because they realised they couldn’t afford me."
Garden design is business, she says, but her art is more personal. "I am creating a body of work which I would be doing anyway, whether or not it sells or is commissioned. And I don’t charge a lot, yet, for my paintings – from £100 for a small line drawing up to £800 for a large canvas."
She says the two disciplines – painting and garden design – fit together better than she could have imagined. "They bounce ideas off each other and I’m always making discoveries. For example, I started using sequins in my painting when I realised they were like the seedheads of Stipa gigantea. Colours in the garden veil each other and change with the light and I am always striving to get that effect in my painting. Gold paint is so saturated in pigment that it alters during the day – sometimes veiled, sometimes opaque. These changes are what I love."