Inside The New York Botanical Garden

The Kinks Play Giverny

Posted in Monet's Garden on June 21 2012, by Matt Newman

Is there a rock star hiding in our Water Lily Pool?

What does the British Invasion of the ’60s have to do with the NYBG‘s Water Lily Pool? Well, some of our visitors think there might be a connection there, but the validity of the link has proven elusive. So, in looking at the water lilies now growing in the outdoor pond–many of them breeds championed by Monet at Giverny–I’m here to set the record straight. Come rock, roll, or high water.

If you spend a few minutes perusing the signage around the water lilies in our pool, you’ll doubtless run into the culprit at the center of the stir. Many of the cultivar names in the collection lean toward Latinized or Asian-inspired nomenclature, but not this one. Even with its flowers yet to bloom, there’s more than one visitor to Monet’s Garden who’s thrown a double take at Nymphaea ‘Ray Davies’.

Since the cultivar found its place in the pond, Twitter has been lit with anxious audiophiles wondering where the lily found its name. Wes Anderson fans will know the moniker from the soundtracks of movies like Rushmore or The Darjeeling Limited. Baby boomers might be quicker on the draw: Ray Davies is (or, I should say, was) the lead singer of perennial rock monolith The Kinks. Still drawing a blank? Think “Lola” (just like cherry cola).

“But Monet died in 1926!” the art-savvy say to themselves. “So what could a rock icon possibly have to do with the father of Impressionism?” Stick with me here; we’re stepping back to the 19th century.

J.B. Latour-Marliac

Claude Monet was still renting the house at Giverny when a chance encounter during the 1889 World’s Fair in Paris rerouted his focus. It was there, among marvels exhibited from around the globe, that the artist first saw Joseph Bory Latour-Marliac’s captivating water lilies; not only were they hardy and luxuriant, but they weren’t white. They skipped across the spectrum in sprightly yellows, pinks, and deep reds, something never before seen in European water lilies. Latour-Marliac‘s creations hybridized local species with North American and Asian varieties, producing striking cultivars through a process played close to the chest even today. Monet, aesthete that he was, had to have them.

The artist purchased Giverny soon after his revelation, and by 1894 he had constructed a pond of his own, a blank canvas ready for planting. Latour-Marliac’s nursery received its inaugural order from Monet that same year. Nymphaea of every color (even a Floridian variety) made up the checklist, accompanied by water chestnuts, wild rice, and a rich selection of lotus varieties among others. In fact, if not for the lotus plants’ failure to thrive in Giverny, Monet’s latter-day oeuvre may have looked a far cry different from what we see today. Ultimately, it was this long-running partnership between artist and horticulturist that laid ground for the water lily murals that would define Monet’s career.

Still, what does this have to do with The Kinks? Well, Latour-Marliac passed away, and so too did Monet. Both the Garden and the nursery continued on as the legacies of their respective artists. And decades later, in 1964, two men sharing the name of Ray Davies were beginning their own legacies across the British channel.

‘Ray Davies’ is keeping a low profile until his blooms open later in summer.

The Ray Davies of stage fame had just found success in The Kinks’ first recognizable hit, “All Day and All of the Night,” joining the British Invasion to make a name as a cult wunderkind in the shadow of groups like The Beatles and The Who. Around that same time, in a shed a few counties away, another Ray Davies was sketching plans for an entirely different creative opus. His Stapeley Water Gardens would go on to become a thriving botanical attraction for over a million visitors a year. It was this Ray Davies, Britain’s water lily guru, that became steward to the Latour-Marliac nursery in 1991, carrying out a massive restoration to return it to its former eminence. And it’s this Ray Davies to whom the NYBG’s visiting water lily owes its name.

Since then, the Stapeley Water Gardens have closed their gates, the Latour-Marliac nursery has changed hands, and The Kinks have broken up. But even if there’s no direct link through time between Monet and the Rock & Roll hall-of-famer, I suspect the painter would have been tickled over this case of mistaken identity. After all, the water lilies were his rock stars.

Oh, and did I mention that today, June 21, is Ray Davies’ 68th birthday? The rock star, that is. If that’s not synchronicity, then the word should be stricken from the dictionary.

Latour-Marliac portrait courtesy of


Candace said:

I quite like reading a post that can make men and women think.
Also, thanks for allowing me to comment!