IT NIGHT be an oil painting or a pair of curtains, but most gardeners will have their favourite blooms represented inside their house as well as outdoors.
Yet the relationship between art and plants goes beyond the decorative and can give us an insight into the history and evolution of many of the flowers we take for granted. Whether it’s sketches, paintings, sculpture or embroidery, images of plants can help us to understand how these flowers have evolved over hundreds of years. It was research into this topic that led author Clare Foster to write a new book, Painterly Plants, which lets us in on the colourful history of 14 of our best-loved blooms.
“I think the majority of people have no idea about the origins of many of our garden flowers – or that their history can stretch back such a long way,” she says. “Very few of the plants we grow in our gardens today are native to Britain – some were brought over with the Romans while others were discovered by intrepid plant hunters in countries as far afield as China, South America or Iran. Many people also don’t realise how much plants have been ‘improved’ by cross-breeding, which further enriches the story of each plant.”
In each chapter of her book, Foster focuses on a particular plant and provides a history, including an artistic history, as well as giving practical information on cultivation and recommended varieties. From the tulipmania of the 17th century to Monet’s waterlilies, she gives us the chance to see these plants in a different way.
Foster points out that in the early years of plant acquisition from overseas, European botanists were often wrong about the provenance or naming of plants, but artists painted what they saw – as true a record as you can get in the complicated world of horticulture. “Before the advent of photography, botanical sketches and prints have been invaluable to botanists trying to identify species and cultivars,” says Foster. “Right from the earliest herbalists, when botanical art started to accurately represent a plant, these paintings and drawings have been widely used to examine and understand a plant’s botanical make-up.”
The origins of the South African bulb, Nerine sarniensis was the source of much confusion for the best part of 200 years. It was first described and illustrated in 1635 in the volume Canadensium Plantarum by physician Jacques Philippe Cornut. The plant was labelled Narcissus japonicus rutilo flore, establishing the widely held belief that it had come from Japan. Foster explains that mistake likely arose because the bulbs had arrived on a Japanese ship, which would have stopped at the Cape on its way. “The really exotic plants such as nerines and hippeastrums, with their brightly-coloured large flowers, are bound to attract more interest than less showy native plants,” says Foster. “Their colours and shapes can’t fail to inspire painters.”
But that’s not to say that some of our more widespread plants haven’t long inspired artists too. The earliest surviving portrait of a rose is more than 3,500 years old. The image is part of the Minoan “Blue Bird” fresco discovered at Knossos on the island of Crete in the 1920s. At Pompeii, wall paintings show roses growing prolifically in Roman gardens. From medieval art to Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s stylised designs, the rose has been present in art for centuries and shows no sign of falling out of favour.
Claude Monet was one painter whose passion for gardening is well known. He closely followed the successes of French nurseryman, Joseph Bory Latour Marliac, a man who worked for ten years to create hardy waterlily hybrids, launching them at the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1889. So impressed was Monet that he immediately decided to create a water garden at his home in Giverny, subsequently producing hundreds of paintings of his water lilies. “Thinking about most of the artists covered in the book, not many of them were known to be keen gardeners as such,” says Foster. “Many of them were naturalists and botanists, though, who travelled the world looking for plants.”
Even the humble daffodil has a fascinating history, as it was used in the funeral wreaths of the ancient Egyptians while the Greeks also wove them into head garlands and used the bulb and root in medicine.
Narcissus is one plant that has gone in and out of fashion – it was hugely popular in the early 1600s but then fell out of favour for 200 years until horticulturists started creating hybrids, sparking interest once more. According to the writings of Pliny the Elder the plant’s name didn’t come from the mythical Greek character who was entranced by his own reflection, but rather from the word “nacre”, meaning narcotic.
The dahlia is another plant that has experienced peaks of popularity – in 1836 an extraordinary 700 varieties of dahlia were listed in the Dahlia Register of the Royal Horticultural Society of London, and plants and tubers were changing hands for huge amounts of money, although perhaps not as much money as the tulip which in the 1620s and 30s was so popular in the Netherlands that single bulbs could sell for the equivalent of thousands of pounds. “I think art has undoubtedly played a part in increasing the popularity of a flower, particularly in history when it was often the only medium that could be circulated to the public via periodicals and books,” says Foster. “But with tulips it probably worked the other way too, with the beauty of the botanical paintings firing up the passion even further.”
So is the relationship between art and plants still as crucial today? “I think art can really make you look again at a certain plant, and indeed I like to think of each flower as a natural work of art itself,” says Foster. “Often, flowers need to be examined close-up to really appreciate the nuances of their beauty, and it is easy to pass them by.”
Botanical paintings often focus on a single flower, magnifying it so its colours and markings are shown in intricate detail. “This can highlight the natural beauty of each bloom, hopefully sending people off to re-examine their own plants and flowers,” says Foster.
• Painterly Plants by Clare Foster with photographs by Sabina Rüber is published by Merrell, £25
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Weather for Edinburgh
Saturday 18 May 2013
Temperature: 9 C to 13 C
Wind Speed: 18 mph
Wind direction: North east
Temperature: 9 C to 18 C
Wind Speed: 8 mph
Wind direction: North east