Friends of Sunspel: Errol Reuben Fernandes
The Head of Horticulture at the Horniman Museum and Gardens on the power of connecting with nature, sustainability and the timeless elegance of Sunspel.
As well as being botanically trained you studied fine art and also trained in art psychotherapy. How did this background lead you to gardening?
I’ve always enjoyed gardening but wasn’t always able to imagine a career for myself within the profession. I went off to study fine art painting and photography at university. I feel that, broadly speaking, this education helped me to develop my abilities as a visual communicator. I also learned how to really look and see things from different perspectives. My artwork often included or made reference to the landscape, in particular a place that I used to play as a child. We lived in West London, close to the canal and there was a beautifully wild brownfield site that I discovered with my brother and a friend. So much of my artwork was about my sense of connection with this wasteland. Later, after a number of years working in museums and galleries within curation and gallery education, I became an art psychotherapist and also practised as a horticultural therapist. The act of creating a piece of art, a drawing, clearing a piece of ground, pruning a shrub or sowing a seed… these acts can provide us with such a powerful sense of immediacy. There is so much metaphor to be found in art and gardening for all that we experience in life. I suppose gardening was really my first love. I’ve meandered around but I feel it’s always been a constant in my life.
What is your approach to landscape management and design and the work you are doing at the Horniman?
Historically, so much of horticulture and landscape management in Europe pre-19th century was about man’s control of nature. Manicured lawns, tightly clipped parterres [formal gardens] and dancing fountains. We’re now firmly rooted in a period that feels much healthier; we’re guided and influenced by nature. Sustainability and ecology are central to our work – naturalistic planting styles, organic approaches, gardening with climate change in mind, water conservation and considering drought-tolerant species. We’re working with nature rather than in opposition to it. This can all sound rather safe and a little boring, but we also aim to keep our displays at the Horniman contemporary, dynamic and exciting. Frederick Horniman, the founder of the museum, had an aim to bring the world to Forest Hill. We do our best to reflect the sense of the cabinet of curiosities that the collection evokes in the gardens collection.
Did you always want to work with nature?
I can’t say that I have always pursued a career working with nature, but I know that I have arrived in a place where I belong and it is a privilege. I am very fortunate to have always had access to gardens and growing space, and I believe that the passion that I and many other gardeners feel for our work and profession began at a young age. I think it is essential that all children are exposed to the wonder of growing things and access to space where this can happen is vital.
What are some of your favourite parks or green spaces?
I have very fond memories of family picnics at Windsor Great Park. It seemed like my childhood was one eternal hot summer. I also love the blustery, stark beauty of Dungeness, coastal walks there botanising along the beach. In contrast, one of the most beautifully surreal green spaces that I have ever visited was the Iguazú National Park in Argentina. My friends and I arrived there after a dusty 1,300km drive from Buenos Aires that took us days. The National Park was a misty tropical paradise complete with a spectacular waterfall, colourful toucans and stunning epiphytic tropical plants draped over the branches of trees.
What is an average day like for you as Head of Horticulture at the Horniman Museum & Gardens?
The average day for me is busy but it’s a very creative and varied role. The site is not huge at 16.5 acres, but the gardens’ collections [which include anthropological displays, a prarie garden, a tropical collection under glass and a sunken garden that dates back to the 1930’s] are vast and constantly growing. I manage a small team of seven gardeners, a gardens apprentice and a group of loyal volunteers. I make it a point to meet with my team every day – they are the main workforce in the gardens, and I depend on their skill and diligence. I often have a few meetings a day to plan projects and events. I try to make it back to the bothy to have lunch with my team but often have to snaffle something in front of my computer. If I am particularly well organised, I get to do some actual gardening and get some dirt under my nails before I go home!
Do you think that people are increasingly keen to reconnect with nature?
Absolutely. After the pandemic it seems everyone is a gardener! I think our renewed appreciation for nature and green spaces is fantastic and we need to hold onto this. I think everyone has a much clearer understanding that our own health and wellbeing is directly connected with the health of our planet.
What is your number one tip when it comes to gardening?
Try and select a community of plants that coexist well together, consider where the plants originate from and the growing conditions in that location when making your choices and aim to match these with the conditions you have in your own garden.
When did you first hear of Sunspel?
Years ago, I worked as a photographer’s assistant within fashion editorial. I remember it was then that I discovered Sunspel and appreciated the quality of fabrics and construction, and the fact that it seemed like such a timeless brand.
What is your favourite piece that the company makes?
I really love the Japanese loopwheel sweatshirt from the collection. I like that it is made using a traditional Japanese technique that has been revived. It creates a very soft and durable knit. The fit is perfect; it’s an absolute classic and a joy to wear.
Style or comfort – which is more important to you?
I have to say that I look for both in clothing; one informs the other in my opinion. Sunspel manages to create garments that evoke a classic, timeless elegance – they are beautifully comfortable and easy to wear.
Photography taken at the Horniman Museum & Gardens.
Follow Errol on Instagram: @errolreubenfernandes