Alfred William Parsons worked both as an artist and as a professional garden designer. He trained briefly at the South Kensington School of Art and went on to establish himself as a successful and widely exhibiting illustrator, watercolourist and painter in oils. Important solo exhibitions of his work were mounted at the Fine Art Society in 1885, 1891, 1893 and 1894. He was made an associate of the Royal Academy in 1897 and a full member in 1911. In 1899 he left the Royal Institute of Painters in Water Colours and was elected an associate of the older Royal Society of Painters in Water Colours, eventually succeeding Sir Ernest Waterlow as president in 1913.
Parsons was working as an illustrator for the American magazine Harper’s when he came to the attention of the garden writer William Robinson, the main populariser of the idea of deliberate wildness in gardening. Robinson commissioned Parsons to illustrate his books, The wild garden (1881) and The English flower garden (1883), and was an important influence when Parsons embarked in the late 1890s upon a career as a garden designer. In 1896 Parsons published a horticultural travelogue, Notes in Japan, and in later years was a judge of the Chelsea Flower Show.
From 1885 Parsons was drawn into the coterie of Anglophile American artists and writers at Broadway in the Cotswolds, whose members included Edwin Austin Abbey, Francis Davis Millet, John Singer Sargent and Henry James. For James, Parsons’ image of the countryside embodied a notion of Englishness that resonated in America especially. ‘Was it there’, the novelist asked in the pages of Harper’s in June 1889, ‘that Mr Parsons learned so well how Americans would like England to appear?... The England of his pencil, and not less of his brush… is exactly the England that the American imagination, restricted to itself, constructs from the poets, the novelists, from all the delightful testimony it inherits… One would like to retire to another planet with a box of Mr Parsons’s drawings, and be homesick there for the pleasant places they commemorate.’
One of Parsons’ most evocative images of the countryside as a haven of peacefulness and traditional ways of life is Mowing time, a watercolour first exhibited with the Royal Birmingham Society of Artists in 1884 before being shown at the Adelaide Jubilee International Exhibition from where it was purchased by the Art Gallery of NSW in 1887. The painter Tom Roberts described the work in the following terms: ‘It is the edge of a field; under the pollard willows are lying the provisions for the mowers in a heap on the lush grass, and half buried in a medley of sweet flowers; all the green is full of sap, and there is just the suggestion across the field that, as usual, there may be a lot of rain before the hay is “got in”.’
Parsons took evident delight in rendering the luxuriant foreground. As the Manchester Guardian observed on 26 March 1885: ‘Mr Parsons knows all phases and moods of English landscape, not as a casual visitor, but as one at home among them… He has more than a nodding acquaintance with English wild flowers… This gives unusual interest to his foregrounds, which… are very delicately and truthfully painted.’
Victorian watercolours, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney 2017