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Details, Details John Everett Millais’s Dew-Drenched Furze 1889–90

The curator of RHS Garden Wisley treads the undergrowth of Millais’s autumnal painting

John Everett Millais, Dew-Drenched Furze (detail), 1889–90, oil paint on canvas, 173.2 × 123 cm

Detail of John Everett Millais’s Dew-Drenched Furze 1889–90, oil paint on canvas, 173.2 × 123 cm

Photo © Tate

I originally come from Withernsea, a small coastal town in East Yorkshire where there are not many trees. It has very open countryside that is exposed to strong north-easterly winds; it also has one of the fastest rates of coastal erosion in Europe. I grew up in a house with a big garden full of overgrown conifers – someone had gone crazy planting them in the 1970s. As a child I thought that there was something really exotic about those trees. My dad had a few books about gardening, one of which was on conifers, and I became particularly obsessed with monkey puzzle trees and their strange shapes.

We would also take trips to places with landscaped gardens, such as Burton Constable, Newby Hall and Castle Howard, where we could see huge, towering cedars and redwoods. I became completely fascinated by these types of trees.

Neither of my parents had a professional interest in gardens so they let me get on with whatever I wanted to do in ours. This meant that I would experiment, pruning things to see how they would grow back (or not in some cases!). I would be left alone to make a lot of mess and plenty of mistakes, which was a great way to learn.

Looking at the details in Millais’s Dew-Drenched Furze reminds me not only of that childhood garden, but also of the beauty of the seasons. I love the mysterious atmosphere of the trees in this picture. It has a spooky feel. You can almost smell the leaf litter. In the foreground he has captured the spirit of the furze (or gorse) first thing in the morning, its beautiful mist of cobwebs that catch the light. It is a classic autumn scene: Mother Nature getting ready for bed.

Dew-Drenched Furze was presented by Geoffroy Millais in memory of his late father, Sir Ralph Millais Bt in 2009.

Matthew Pottage is Curator of RHS Garden Wisley.