Flora conspicua, by William MorrisBiodiversity Heritage Library, Flickr

Representations of nature have always had a special place in art and design. Consider for instance, the ever-present foliage carvings which adorn the old buildings in Cambridge, forever in bloom.

Or take the great many still life paintings and botanical watercolours that are currently on display at the Fitzwilliam Museum, as part of its Floral Fantasies exhibition. This particular show, I find, raises some interesting questions. How is the artwork of nature presented? And how are these presentations related to contemporary projections on the natural world?

It seems impossible to separate humanity from nature

A good place to start is the work of Clarence Bicknell. Notable as he was for his accurate botanical illustrations on Italian flora – to the point of publishing several books featuring these works – the exhibition has chosen to feature his more subjective and personal albums, gifted to his niece Margaret Barry. The first one is opened to a page with illustrations of dandelions, invoking the stylings of botanical illustration, with the leaves clearly shown and the flowers represented in all the stages from bud to seed-head awaiting the wind. But the bottom-right corner, with its whimsical drawing of a dandelion posed like a lion under the legend and crown of the Order of the Golden Lion, undermines the seeming objectivity of the botanical illustration. It foregrounds the true theme of the whole album: a rumination on and ranking of the various European wildflowers. His other featured work presents a further juxtaposition as he appears to move away from any semblance of botanical illustration to focus on representing flowers in geometric shapes and patterns. The label notes that the careful arrangements of flower, leaf and stem might reflect the popular contemporary Arts and Crafts movement, which sought unity and coherence in its designs.

The careful floral patterning of the Arts and Crafts movement, epitomised by William MorrisWilliam Morris: Selected Works

The usage of floral designs in the decorative arts is very much acknowledged by the exhibition. In cases adjacent to those of Bicknell’s work are bowls, plates, needle holders and brooches embellished with a profusion of colourful flowers. Many of these appear to predate the aforementioned geometric tendency as their adornment leans clearly towards an overwhelming amount of detail with multicoloured flowers covering the majority of the piece. The level of detail present was so noteworthy that the case had to be accompanied by magnifying glasses to allow full appreciation of the miniscule embellishments.

Further works elaborating on this idea include the painting of Redoute’s classroom, where the label helpfully informs the visitor that students learnt the artistic skill sets with an eye not just on painting and illustration for pure aesthetic appeal but for creating floral designs for the textile industry. The long tradition of flowers in fashion continues today with the Fitzwilliam’s partnership with Oasis, such that designs based on the botanical illustrations of yore (now with interesting geometric arrangements) grace the sundresses, shoes, bags and shirts that are sold in their stores.

Moreover, after having gone for a wander around the rest of the museum, it became clear to me how often nature can become a method of displaying elite status and wealth. A flower related example is seen in the large stemmed vase on display in one of the galleries. Such vases, fit only for the purpose of holding large numbers of flowers in complementary shades and arrangements, served to illustrate the wealth of the owner. Only they could afford such a large vase just for flowers and have enough space to display it.

A watercolour by Octavianus MontfortWeb Gallery of Art

When it comes to wealth and nature, an even more amusing example might be the Fitzwilliam Museum’s founder, Richard FitzWilliam, the 7th Viscount FitzWilliam, and his associations with the pineapple. Pineapples, as I have been told by a staff member at the museum, were associated by his contemporaries with prosperity and generosity, apparently because they were offered to guests as gifts. They were a (relatively) subtle indicator that the giver had the resources and knowledge to grow tropical fruit in temperate climates.


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After all this, one ends up pondering why nature continues to crop up in artwork. I suspect there isn’t a general conclusion for all the varied time periods and regions of the world and the infinite artistic variety in nature continues to trump human creativity. One thing I can say with more certainty is that it seems impossible to separate humanity from nature. Considering how we keep welcoming flower motifs into our homes, I don’t think anyone actually wants to try.

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