Wildflowers for the Queen
- Credit: Wildflower Press
Cotswold photographer Hugo Rittson Thomas is perhaps best known for high-profile photographic portraiture, including images of HM Queen Elizabeth II, Prince William, the Dalai Lama and David Cameron. He also has a deep interest in garden and nature photography, reflected in his latest publication...
You're well known for your Royal portraiture, Hugo, with the astonishing The Queen's People coming out in 2016, but your first published book was Secret Gardens of the Cotswolds, in 2015. What attracted you to horticultural photography?
I grew up in the Cotswolds on a farm and have always felt part of nature, being outside was far more common than being inside – whatever the weather! I recall at my prep school I was given a one-yard-square plot to cultivate, and was thrilled to win a prize for my efforts. Sometimes it exists within me as a tiny seed and sometimes it’s in full bloom – but the passion is always there.
With my new book, my idea was that as a photographer I could try to recapture in images the magic and inspiration that I had felt as a child exploring nature; to celebrate the rich botanical heritage of the wildflowers and unique meadows of England.
How did you develop the distinctive 'mirror technique' used famously for your Royal portraits?
I saw Anthony van Dyck’s Charles I in Three Positions at the National Portrait Gallery, and I was intrigued to experiment with how to implement this technique in a modern way. I felt it was important to see all the sides of the uniforms and regalia as they are so intricate and historically important; every tassel and button has significance which I wanted to capture. The big hurdle was how to avoid me being seen in the mirrors – which resulted in a full black-out set being built at Windsor Castle – in the White Drawing Room, ironically. The build was very complicated, and was finished with literally minutes to spare, and with only two inches between the top studio light and the chandelier in the room!
You've gone on to publish Secret Gardens of the Cotswolds, Great Gardens of London, Secret Gardens: Private Sanctuaries of Britain's Artists and Creators, and now Wildflowers for the Queen. Which have been your favourite gardens to photograph, and why?
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I’ve been very lucky to see some incredible houses and gardens, and they largely resonate with me for different reasons. In Secret Gardens, I was struck by how all these incredibly successful creative people had the time and the inclination to focus their creativity on their gardens as well as their respective craft. From Prue Leith, to Sting, to Jeremy Irons… they all come from such different disciplines and yet their skills still translated to stunning garden design.
By comparison, when I photographed 10 Downing Street (Great Gardens of London) it was a completely different prospect and technically a different task altogether, with so many shadows from surrounding buildings; but the layers of history were fascinating, and I couldn’t shake the immense feeling of being so close to history, and history in the making!
I found Sezincote House (photographed for Secret Gardens of the Cotswolds) was immensely impressive, as the same design theme runs from the house through to the garden seamlessly; the mix of Neo-Mughal and classic English in the grounds is quite a vision.
Where are you based in the Cotswolds, and are you a keen gardener yourself?
I live near the ancient Wychwood Forest, near Charlbury. The garden and, by extension, nature became an even more important part of my life from the first lockdown in March 2020. It forced me to spend more time outside, and my appreciation of what’s on my doorstep massively increased from an already high bar.
Last year was the warmest spring on record, and what a treat of wildflowers it produced, notably the most beautiful bluebells I have ever seen! I almost felt this was my reward for all the hard work that went into photographing the Coronation Meadows around the UK.
My wife Silka has been more hands-on than I have, and has made some incredible additions to the garden, too. Not only her 100-yard-long organic cut flower beds (which she sells through her Tuk Tuk Flower Studio), but also the wildflower meadow orchard which again last year turned into this incredible display of violently red poppies. Its call was so strong I tried to do all my email work sitting in the middle of it surrounded by the buzz and wonders of such a vibrant orchard!
How important is it for us to protect our existing wildflower meadows, and to plant new ones?
Wildflower meadows are crucial, due to the biodiversity benefits they bring. This, in turn, supports a host of birds, mammals, insects and invertebrates, further increasing the biodiversity of the surrounding area.
Insects alone are critical for our planet's functioning; they recycle nutrients, control pests that could otherwise decimate crops, and provide food for a great many species, including many of the birds we like to see in our gardens. Some insect species are also vital for pollination; approximately three quarters of the crops we grow are pollinated by insects – without them we would have no chocolate or coffee!