BRINGING THE GARDEN INDOORS
For centuries artists have captured the beauty of nature in all its forms on paper and on canvas but little has surpassed their achievements in portraying the beauty and variety of plants, writes expert Richard Ellison of The Country House Gallery. Photography: Robin Lyndon
Flowers have been among the artist’s most popular muses and have inspired artists from every corner of the globe, not only to paint them but to create their own magnificent gardens such as Monet’s gardens at Giverny.
Flowers are perhaps the one subject in art that has never been out of fashion. In every period in the history of painting, from the ancient Egyptians, through the Middle Ages and the Renaissance to the great Impressionists, flowers have played a role. Today we enjoy our gardens more than ever, soaking up the peace and tranquillity they bring, keeping us directly in touch with the natural world and helping us step out of the chaos, even if only for a while.
Many early botanical illustrations were linked to plants with medicinal or pharmacological properties and were to aid identification rather than to adorn the walls as art. The earliest surviving illustrated botanical work is the Codex vindobonensis, made in 512AD for the daughter of Roman Emperor Olybrius.
Flower painting (huahui) as an independent genre of art without having consideration to medicinal practices began in China as early as the 7th century AD. It was associated with Taoism, the philosophy which emphasises harmony with nature. Spreading to Japan and later to the west, the flower became a favourite among artists and was studied and painted by many famous artists from Da Vinci to Van Gogh.
Flowers have also been used to portray feelings and emotions and have found symbolic representation both in art and in life. The early Christians saw the flower as a symbol of chastity while the Romans viewed it as a symbol of spring and new life. The Victorians bestowed upon the flower a whole bouquet of symbolism and association, indeed an entire floral vocabulary – love, death, beauty, joyfulness, chivalry, purity, cheerfulness, remembrance and humility – all represented by flowers.
So life without flowers would really be rather dull, certainly less fragrant and infinitely less colourful. In the ever quickening blur of life, flower pictures are themselves becoming symbolic of our desire to preserve our planet and to re-connect with nature. Interior design has thankfully slid from the stark desolation of minimalism to being influenced by plants and the natural world. After all, we were born in it, we live in it, we’re part of it, so why not embrace it in all its glory. And what is more glorious than flowers?