Peering through the gate that opens on to Tamsin Scott’s cottage in Rye, East Sussex, I imagine the star of a period drama, trailing skirts swishing as she makes her way up the garden path. Barely contained planting cascades across flagstones in a froth of snapdragons, lupins and lavender. The effect, says Scott, is the quintessence of English gardening: “Rambling, luxuriant, a little eccentric.”
Scott knows about these things. As the floral designer behind Amazon’s genre-fluid series The Great, or Autumn de Wilde’s macaroon-hued film version of Emma, her job is to ensure that the on-screen flora is “narrative appropriate”. A hothouse jasmine for Jane Austen’s aspirational Emma; “over-the-top cascades of wild roses” for Elle Fanning as Catherine the Great. “Flowers can tell their own quiet story,” she says.
Nature brings poetry to the home she shares with her husband, Oliver, and their two children. The 1820s listed property – said to be one of the earliest bungalows in Britain – was built for the gardener who tended the nearby estate. In summer, the garden is perfumed with honeysuckle and roses; a venerable fig tree throws green shade and there is a treehouse that Scott made from salvaged wooden panelling, complete with a porthole window.
“We used to live in a house with two front doors in the middle of Rye, but I’d been eyeing up this place for a while,” says Scott. Visiting for the first time, she clutched the estate agent’s hand. It was a thesp-ish moment. “I wept… because I knew that I didn’t need to go inside.”
Over time, she has transformed the L-shaped interior, “sucking the wild, meadowy” outside inside. The sitting room is that deep green traditionally used in hospital wards to create a calm atmosphere. Scott painted wide stripes – like a vintage big top – in one bedroom. They added a mishmash of art and antiques to the hallway “to glue it all together”. Her great-grandmother’s cruise-holiday trunk hides the record player. The kitchen dresser gleams with Spode blue and white: “I can remember special meals eaten off each plate.”
There are props too: an overscaled cotton reel turned into a table or the chicken wire swan, salvaged from past productions.
Like the influential midcentury florist Constance Spry, who also worked in film, Scott is a fan of swan-shaped vases, which bring serenity to surfaces. “The earliest ones date from 1900 and were made by potteries such as Goebel or Hornsea. My grandmother collected them and used to name each one. There’s a Cedric in the kitchen, Maude’s on the dresser and Gertrude is in the sitting room.”
A swan-like pedalo drifts across a lake in a photo by Tim Walker, which hangs above the fireplace. Scott, a former BBC journalist, has known the fashion photographer, renowned for his ethereal bloom-strewn imagery, since childhood and occasionally works on shoots with him. In their early 20s the friends would forage for flowers for his early assignments. She remembers moonlit nights, shaking trees to release blossoms. Walker once called Scott “the Constance Spry to his Cecil Beaton”.
Ideas take root in her studio, set in an old apple store, where the door opens on to views of the valley. Silk flowers wrap around beams; vintage cabinets are filled with reference books. “I use everything from vintage seed catalogues to paintings to get the details right. Wallpaper’s a good starting point. The Victorians, for instance, used rich Gothic styles. After the 1840s, they shifted to macaroon colours with silvery golds. By the 1940s flowers had become more fun – a spray of love-lies-bleeding, a curled rhubarb leaf.”
For Trust, the TV series on John Paul Getty III, Scott chose brash, 1980s blooms: “Diamond-shaped displays of clashing colours, spiky orchids, clumsy carnations. I’m actually rather fond of how bad flowers were then.”
Flowers, trailing across mantelpieces or candlelit dining tables, fill every frame of Emma, which stars Anya Taylor-Joy. “I was fascinated by the class elements of each character and wanted to make sure these were right. The Coles, who are on their way up in society, had flowers to impress; modest Miss Bates would have picked whatever was to hand.” When Emma meets eligible bachelor Frank Churchill in her glasshouse, she is flirtatiously picking sweetpeas and jasmine, flowers that would be out of season for all but the well-heeled.
In medieval times, it was traditional to give friends a posy or “tussie mussie” of flowers to ward off spirits – and smells. Scott likes to make her own version. On country walks, she gathers up feathers and wildflowers. Secured with a ribbon and dangling from her front door, Scott’s modern posy has a double meaning. You might choose to see it as a talisman or, as she puts it: “Just a pretty thing to adorn your home.”