Jerry Harpur, groundbreaking photographer renowned for his sumptuous images of gardens – obituary (2024)

Jerry Harpur, who has died aged 93, was a pioneering garden photographer whose gorgeous images, characterised by a masterful understanding of light and a fascination with garden design, featured in glossy magazines and more than 300 books.

Harpur became a great friend of many leading garden designers. Beth Chatto gave him an epimedium to grow in his own garden and they travelled together on a garden-visiting trip to Australia with Christopher Lloyd. He crisscrossed Iran with Penelope Hobhouse, investigating the remains of ancient gardens, as well as more modern creations, and taking more than 150 atmospheric photographs for her Gardens of Persia, published in 2005.

For Barbara Segall’s Gardens by the Sea (2002) he travelled from New Zealand to the French Riviera, from Martha’s Vineyard to a remote plot in Western Scotland and from Capri to California, to present, among others, a waterfront farm in Washington, a tropical seaside jungle in Auckland and a clifftop garden in western Scotland.

At a more modest level, he collaborated with David Stevens on Roof Gardens, Balconies and Terraces (1997), providing ideas from all over the world to inspire and encourage amateur gardeners to make more interesting use of sky-high patches and small city plots. Harpur also wrote the text to several books of his own photographs, including Gardens in Perspective (2005), which revealed the understanding of garden design and familiarity with the philosophy of garden designers which always distinguished his work.

At the beginning of the 1980s, when he sold his first series of garden photographs, Harpur knew of only three British photographers working exclusively with gardens. Today, with an explosion of interest in gardening books and magazines, there are at least 20 professional specialists in the UK.

In 1999, with his fellow star photographer Andrew Lawson, Harpur founded the Professional Garden Photographers’ Association, which now has more than 100 members across the globe. In 2011 Harpur was the subject of a retrospective at the Garden Museum, south London, in which 26 of his prints adorned three walls, each showing the work of a different garden designer.

Jerry Harpur was born on Christmas Eve 1930 and became interested in gardening as a child. “I was seven,” he told the Telegraph’s Ed Cumming in 2011, “and I made a little garden in my mother’s garden in Northamptonshire. We had no money, so that was the simplest way to keep entertained.”

His first camera was a Kodak Box Brownie acquired in 1944 , and after the war he spent five years as a photographer for the RAF, including a period in Colonel Nasser’s Egypt, where he took the opportunity to make forays to photograph the pyramids and the treasures of Tutankhamun. He also spent time as a news photographer in Spain.

Back in London in the 1960s he went freelance, shooting reportage-style cigarette ads in the days before restrictions were imposed – including, as he recalled,“oarsmen smoking between races at Henley. Unthinkable now.”

His career as a garden photographer was sparked in 1979 when he was commissioned to photograph Percy Thrower in his garden at Merrington, near Shrewsbury. The pictures were a success, and after going to Chelsea Flower Show for the first time in 1980, he began to establish a reputation as a garden photographer. He was soon taken on by House & Garden, for whom he continued to work for many years.

He started going abroad after the publication in 1985 of Penelope Hobhouse’s Colour in the Garden, which sold particularly well in America: “I realised that the Americans would be more interested in British books if they had more pictures of American gardens in them,” he recalled. For many years he would spend three or four months every year travelling the world.

“The most saleable pictures are those taken early in the morning or late at night,” he told Ed Cumming. “Just look at Monet’s successive paintings of haystacks from early to late in the day.” But sun was not always necessary and his work included atmospheric images of gardens taken in all weathers.

Harpur worked with every major name in gardening, others including Rosemary Verey, Steve Martino, Christopher Bradley-Hole, Tom Stuart-Smith and the Telegraph’s 2011 Chelsea-winning designer, Cleve West.

His other books included The Gardener’s Garden (1985), a tour of 33 British gardens – kitchen gardens, cottage gardens, zen gardens, park gardens. The book had a foreword by the artist John Piper, whose garden near Henley had been an early inspiration to Harpur.

Harpur and his wife Marjorie had four sons, one of whom, Marcus Harpur, became an acclaimed garden photographer in his own right, but who died from cancer aged 52 in 2017.

Jerry Harpur, born December 24 1930, died June 12 2024

Jerry Harpur, groundbreaking photographer renowned for his sumptuous images of gardens – obituary (2024)
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