Flowers and Flora
In this new blog series, our curators, archivists, conservators and learning team will be bringing together works of art from across the Collection under one theme. From armour and jewellery, to portraits and porcelain, read about some of the most fascinating and marvellous pieces in the Collection here.
Here we start with 'Flowers and Flora', a lush and warming trail of some of the Collection's most flamboyant and charismatic pieces.
Flowers in a Vase by Jan van Huysum, 1726
This sumptuous arrangement, full of movement, deep colour and asymmetrical patterns, is formed from flowers which bloom at different times of year. Each species, from apple blossom, a crown imperial, poppy, tulips to a rose, is rendered with meticulous attention to detail, which in combination with the directed lighting, further emphasises their value and beauty. Droplets of water on petals and leaves and butterflies and small insects heighten the sense of life and movement.
Jan van Huysum was a flower painter in Amsterdam in the early eighteenth century.
A pair of incense burners, Mid-Qing Dynasty, probably Qianlong period (1736–1795)
These monumental incense burners are lavishly decorated with cloisonné enamel. Their decorative motifs include dragons and various flowers and birds. They all have symbolic meaning. For example, the peony stands for wealth and honour, and the chrysanthemum for longevity.
Many symbols in Chinese art originated in the language – words with different meanings became associated with each other because they sound similar when spoken. Lotus, for instance, is a homophone for the word ‘harmony’. The Chinese believed that by surrounding themselves with auspicious symbols, their wishes would come true.
Armet with two exchangeable visors by Wolfgang Grosschedel, c. 1535–1540
When flora and fauna are used to decorate works of art, the artist observes the natural world while also contemplating human relationships with nature. In the narrow borders etched onto this Renaissance helmet, scrolling vines bring a sense of twisting movement, sprouting into humanoid creatures. The helmet’s comb has been etched with a hunting scene, where foxes and hares are pursued by hounds.
These are not just charming motifs, but rather are part of a deeper message. The visual statement is completed by the decorative band around the neck of the helmet, which contains the interlocked, spiked links of a hunting hound’s collar, placed symbolically around the neck of the wearer. This creates an unmistakable chivalric message- this knight is the hunting dog of his lord, straining at the lead, eager to be set on his enemies.
Wall light attributed to Louis-Gabriel Feloix, c. 1788
These two pairs of wall-lights were cast and chased by Louis-Gabriel Féloix, and gilded by Claude Galle, between 1787-8. They were designed for Marie-Antoinette’s bedroom at the Château de Saint-Cloud, a large country house on the outskirts of Paris which Louis XVI bought for his wife, believing the fresher air would be good for her and the children. The queen immediately set about refurbishing her apartments, with new furniture, wall silks and gilt-bronze ornament.
They were of the latest fashion. Designed in an exuberant and playful style, an array of eagle heads, lion masks, garlands of fruit and foliage, pan pipes, satyrs, ribbons and tassels decorate the acanthus candle branches. The delicacy of the execution and the detail of the component parts – the feathers on the eagles, the luscious grapes, pears and pomegranates of the cornucopia, and the naturalistic roses, asters, pinks and pinecones of the floral swags – make these into stunning works of art.
Palm Trees by Prosper Marilhat, probably 1831–3
This oil sketch is an open air study from nature made during his visit to the Middle East in the first half of the nineteenth century. Look closely and you can see details he must have observed as he worked outdoors under a hot sun — the rough texture of the leaves, the warm, golden light, the sandy ground…
Ewer by the Meissen porcelain factory with French gilt-bronze mounts, 1740–5
These ewers are spectacular works of rococo decorative art, dating to between 1740 and 1745. The ewers are made from large porcelain vases from the Meissen manufactory, which have been given wonderfully exuberant gilt-bronze handles and mounts. The surfaces of the vases are covered in intricately modelled little flowers – Meissen called this ‘maiblumen’, after the German word for hawthorn blossom, or May, which produces small clusters of creamy-white flowers.
In the painted reserves are scenes after Antoine Watteau depicting fashionable contemporary people in imagined parkland settings. Elaborate acanthus mounts scroll their way around the bases of these vases to form stands, and along their sides and tops to form handles and spouts. Long-beaked birds, with delicately chased plumage, perch expectantly on top of the handles, peering down into the vases.