Tag Archives: Flora and Fauna

Worts and All

When I first planted my garden, I was studying horticultural texts from the late medieval and early modern eras, and determined to have the same plants that I was reading about in my own backyard. In particular, I sought out plants that ended with the suffix wort, Old English and German for “plant” or “root”, believing that these ancient plants would connect me to the past–no matter what they looked like! And so, for the past decade or so, I’ve had some rather straggly plants in my garden just because of their heritage–or supposed heritage. Actually some “wort plants” are quite commonly used in modern gardens: varieties of stachys (woundwort), epimedium (barrenwort–containing an aphrodisiac essence), St. John’s Wort, pulmonaria (lungwort), the indestructible groundcover herniaria glabra (rupturewort, sometime called “burstwort”), saponaria (soapwort), astrantia major (masterwort). According to the Doctrine of Signatures and their appearance, the vernacular names of these plants reflect their uses. I have all of these plants in my garden still:  they survived our tough winter. However, it seems that some of my lesser-know wort plants did not: I seem to have lost my motherwort (leonurus cardiaca, of which Nicholas Culpepper commented in 1653, there is no better herb to take melancholy vapours from the heart … and make a merry, cheerful, blithe soul for mothers and everyone else), the variety of campanula that is called “throatwort” is gone, as are many of my ferns, including a maidenhair variety referred to as “spleenwort” in the medieval herbals. Actually the motherwort was much too big for my garden, so I don’t think I’m going to miss it, or the very common mugwort (artemesia) which seems to be gone as well.  I ripped out my spiderwort (tradescantia) long ago because it was so ungainly, and I’m not convinced it was even that old: from the 17th century on, the word wort seems to be rather liberally applied to plants of all kind, even those from the New World.

Wort Fuchs Bloodwort-001

Wort Fuchs Hazelwort-001

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Worts 005

Bloodwort and Hazelwort from Leonhard Fuchs’ New Herbal of 1543 (all plates available here; a great resource!); my surviving soapwort, lungwort, and barrrenwort.


Bright white May Days

Beautiful weather here, at long last. Yesterday, Mother’s Day, was nothing short of spectacular. Everyone was in a blissful mood. I’ve been running, literally, around town, trying to ramp up my endurance but I always take my camera with me so I suppose I’m not really that serious about it. I don’t want to miss anything: blooming bleeding hearts, turtles in Greenlawn cemetery (they always seem to line up on the same fallen branch in order of weight and size), unusual houses (the two white ones are hard to pin down in terms of style and period: would be grateful for more informed opinions), groundhogs (couldn’t get the picture, sorry), bubbles. My garden came to life almost overnight: last week I was in despair, but now it looks like the jacks-in-the-pulpit and lady’s slippers are about to bust out of the ground along with most (not all, but most) of my perennials. I’m going to fill in some of the holes that I do have in the shade garden with brunnera macrophylla (with purple flowers below), which has proved itself to be both pretty and hardy.

Salem (and bubbles in Concord):

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Yesterday afternoon we went up to New Castle, New Hampshire to have brunch with my family at Wentworth by the Sea, built as the Hotel Wentworth in 1872, abandoned a century and a decade later, and “restored” (rebuilt?) ten years ago. It was a big part of my early life and even though it’s not the most sensitive of restorations it was nice to see it full of smiling happy people yesterday. I’ve included a photograph of its dark days in the 1990s for contrast. We drove home past long lines at each and every ice cream stand along the way–although in New England, you see that in February.

New Castle, New Hampshire:

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Wentworth photo

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Here be Hedgehogs

Well, it’s actually Hedgehog Awareness Week, so I feel that I need to do my part. I always decorate with animals, and generally it’s a seasonal cycle of snails/foxes/deer/rabbits with a few individual oddities, but just recently I bought a cute ceramic hedgehog so I was thinking about about expanding my menagerie…..and then came Hedgehog Awareness Week! Interesting and historical images of hedgehogs are not difficult to find: medieval illustrators often inserted urcheons/urchins into the margins of their manuscripts and there are also several tales to inspire images: Aesop’s Fox and the Hedgehog ( a title that was adapted by Isaiah Berlin for his classic essay on types of thinkers, inspired by the observation of Archilochus that the fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing), the Grimm brothers’ Hans-my-Hedgehog and The Hare and the Hedgehog, and a host of other hedgehog stories penned (and drawn) more recently. There are hedgehogs in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Peter Rabbit: they are a cute and easy addition to any illustrated story. So it was difficult to narrow down my collection of hedgehog images, but here goes.

Medieval Urchins (hence Sea Urchins!):

Hedgehog BL 2-001

Hedgehog Egerton-001

Add. 39636, f. 13.

Hedgehog and Ape-001

British Library MS Harley 3244 f. 49v (13th c.); MS Egerton 1121 f. 44v (15th c.–the hedgehog mocks the goat admiring his reflection in a stream); MS Additional 39636, ff. 13  (15th c.–St. Benedict and a hedgehog); Royal 15 E IV f. 180 (15th c.)

Some early modern hedgehogs: because of his voracious appetite and hibernation habit, the hedgehog often represented gluttony, as on the flag below, and his round silhouette was made for mockery:

Hedgehog vices BM-001

Hedgehog and Hare BM-001

Hedgehog 1777 BM-001

British Museum engraving of the Vices by Heinrich Aldegrever, 1552; engraving after Marcus Gheeraerts’ illustrations of Aesop’s Fables, c. 1630; satirical print of “Miss Hedgehog” published by Matthew Daly, 1777

Whimsical and utilitarian hedgehogs, 19th-21st centuries:

V0049518 A crowned fairy king seated on a hedgehog drawn by a young g Hedgehog Bulb Pot Wedgwood V and A 1820-001

Hedgehog Pincushion-001

Hedgehog May-001

The King of the Fairies rides his hedgehog, 19th c., Wellcome Library Images; Bulb Pot by Josiah Wedgwood, 1820, Victoria & Albert Museum; Hedgehog pincushion (there’s a long tradition of these!), Tatjana Ceramics; Calendar Page for May, Catherine Bradbury,© Catherine Bradbury, Bridgeman Art Library / Private Collection

 


 

 

 


Enchanted Gardens

I’m rather depressed about my garden: I think I lost a lot of perennials–including many dear old friends–over this past bitter winter. This is generally the week–or even earlier–that my favorite spring plants pop up, but so far all I see is trillium and pulmonaria in the “woodland garden” out back. Notably missing is my all-time favorite, the almost-magical Jack-in-the-pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum), which should definitely have popped up by now. I think my Jacks are dead, although several of my gardening friends tell me to not give up hope as we are as much as four weeks behind this year, but there is not a single little sprout to be found peeping through the mulch. I fear for my Lady Slippers, but they come up a bit later so I have not given into despair quite yet. The center perennial beds seem to be in better shape than the shady back, with the exception of the germander edging border that I’ve been slowly developing over the past few years: quite a few of the individual plants have been lost, breaking the uniformity of the border. I’m tempted to just rip them all out and start fresh with a hardier plant, and so I would really welcome suggestions for low-lying, traditional, hardy, front of the border alternatives.

So I am not spending these first precious days of May dancing around my lush, flowering garden (in a flowing white dress) because it is neither lush nor flowering: looking for inspiration (or escape) I am instead delving into the “Enchanted Garden” sub-sub-sub genre of paintings. Of course medieval-esque fantasy gardens are a favorite Pre-Raphaelite theme, but even before their Decameron-inspired images appeared in the nineteenth century, artists were inspired to amplify nature in rather seductive ways. In the later sixteenth century, the popular poem by the Italian poet Tarquinato Tasso, Gerusaleme Liberata (Jerusalem Liberated), inspired several paintings of enchanted gardens. The poem turns the Crusades into an epic fantasy, in which heroic Christian knights confront all sorts of obstacles in the Holy Land. One particular knight, Rinaldo, is enticed by the beautiful Saracen sorceress Armida to enter her lush garden, and there she keeps him occupied for quite some time, until he is rescued by his comrades. I like the painting by Flemish artist Jan Soens best among several illustrations of Rinaldo and Armida, because it seems to focus as much on the garden as on the sorceress.

Enchanted Garden 16th C

Jan Soens, Rinaldo and Armida in the Enchanted Garden, c. 1581-1611, The Walters Art Museum

Several centuries later, Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron inspired several pre-Raphaelite painters to depict one of its most popular stories (the 5th to be told on the 10th day): the tale of the besotted Ansaldo, who conjured up a magical May garden in the midwinter for his lady love, Dianora, who had promised him that she would leave her husband and run away with him if he completed this seemingly-impossible task. Ultimately Ansaldo releases Dianora from her promise, and the garden dissolves “like the morning dew”, but it seems to have been a collective aim of British romantic painters to recapture it and other enchanted gardens for posterity.

Enchanted Garden Stillman

(c) Lady Lever Art Gallery; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Enchanted Garden Waterhouse tree-001

Marie Spartali Stillman, Messr. Ansaldo Showing Diavola His Enchanted Garden, 1889; John Waterhouse, The Enchanted Garden, 1917, Lady Lever Art Galler, and study for above, Victoria & Albert Museum Collections

Also romantic, in a more naive way, are the paintings of British artist Helen Fielding (1900-1979) who depicted her Lancashire environment in an ever-charming way, including a garden that seems enchanted in all seasons, here pictured, as vividly remembered, in the spring of 1908. I love the inscription on the back, from the Christie‘s catalog: The Enchanted Garden was very/beautiful in April, when Father thought it would be better to send Mother, George and I also the Aunts, Grandma and Miss/Carter (who wore pink) to Grandpa’s at Blackpool/to be safely out of the way of the Suffragettes/in Lees. We saw for the first time the/Wild Cherries in flower and small trees/covered in the palest pink blossoms/which Grandpa said was the Crab apple, George and I had never seen trees/with blossom which covered them like/snow, also in the Enchanted Garden was/the pond which would soon be full of frogs/and tadpoles and the year was 1908/Helen Layfield Bradley 1975. I know just what she means by “trees covered with blossoms like snow”, don’t you? Still waiting for that here.

Enchanted Garden Bradley

Helen Fielding, The Enchanted Garden, 1975


Beauty Sleep

As it happened I was watching the 1935 film version of Romeo and Juliet (starring Leslie Howard and Norma Shearer) while I was going through seed catalogs and doing some (late) garden planning. Just as Juliet went into her deep sleep, I came to the herbal sections of one catalog, and remembered that I always wanted some belladonna (Atropa Belladonna; Deadly Nightshade) for my garden–just because it’s one of the most storied poisonous plants in history. A decade or so ago, when I had given over most of my garden to herbs which served as either plague cures or poisons (for scholarship!), a student gave me some belladonna seeds–which I thought was very nice/cheeky of him–but the plant lasted only one season. So I’d like to try again. Juliet reminded me:  Shakespeare is not specific, but it must have been belladonna on his mind. His contemporary, John Gerarde, wrote that a small quantity could lead to madness, a moderate amount to a “dead sleep”, and too much to death in his Herball or General Historie of Plantes (1597). As Friar Laurance observes in the play,”within the infant rind of this small flower/poison hath residence and medicine power” and later instructs Juliet: Take thou this vial, being then in bed, / And this distilled liquor drink thou off; / When presently through all thy veins shall run / A cold and drowsy humour, for no pulse… And in this borrow’d likeness of shrunk death / Thou shalt continue two and forty hours.

Belladonna Juliet-001

L0058356 Glass bottle used for tincture of belladonna, England, 1880-

Juliet considering her options and holding a belladonna? tincture in an 1830 print by William Say (British Museum) and an apothecary bottle from 1880 (Wellcome Library Images).

Friar Laurence was right: belladonna has the virtues of both medicine and poison, but throughout history, its emphasized use has been on the latter (poison-tipped arrows, “inheritance powders”, magical ointments which enable witches to fly) with the exception of the cosmetic application which explains its vernacular name, “beautiful lady”. The Renaissance image of beauty encompassed not only a high forehead but also a certain wide-eyed (literally) look, and Atropa Belladonna contains a muscle-relaxant substance (atropine) that dilates the eyes for long periods of time. Presumably the fashionable Renaissance lady had to be quite knowledgeable about how to prepare her tincture, or have a reliable apothecary. I always thought the Raphael’s mistress Margheriti Luti was the perfect belladonna girl, and he certainly admired her. Perhaps the “spring beauty must-have”, Giorgio Armani’s Belladonna palette, can create a similar look (and I wonder if Mr. Armani knows that the name conjures up as many references to death and it does to beauty?)

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Raphael, Woman with a veil (La Donna Velata), 1516, Galleria Palatina, Florence, Italy; Giorgio Armani’s Belladonna palette for Spring 2014; Atropa Belladonna as depicted in one of Mary Delany’s beautiful collages , 1791, British Museum.

 


Monarchs and Monkeys

When you teach with a lot of images, as I do, you’ve got to be ready to answer all sorts of questions, because students will notice every little thing and be much more interested in the margins than the focal point. I have been rendered answer-less on more than one occasion, so I always try to be prepared. When discussing queenship in my Tudor-Stuart class, for example, I would never, never, never show them two of my favorite portraits of queens, Katherine of Aragon by Lucas Horenbout and Henrietta Maria by Anthony van Dyck, because I know that their attention would almost immediately move away from the women and turn to the monkeys. Why would these two dignified Queens have their portraits painted with monkeys? Well, it varies with the Queen, so let’s start with Katherine, the first wife of Henry VIII, whose miniature portrait by Lucas Horenbout was painted in 1525, just about the time that Henry began the long process of attempting to annul their marriage, a desire that would eventually result in the severing of ties with Rome and the English Reformation.

PicMonkey Collage

Katherine panel

I’m featuring several versions of this image: the original miniature (from the Duke of Buccleauch Collection), doubled for effect, and a later and larger copy on wood panels, featuring a younger Katherine and a clearer view of her monkey and its message–because there is a pretty obvious message here. Like her father-in-law, Henry VII, and several other contemporary royals, Katherine probably enjoyed having a monkey as a pet (and it was said to hail from her native Spain), but the pet has a purpose in this image: he (or she?) holds a Tudor rose in one hand and is reaching for Katherine’s crucifix rather than the coin she is offering to him. While medieval monkeys could represent all sorts of negative things–the Devil himself, foolishness, vice–the monkey of Katherine’s time was more likely a symbol of exotic worldliness and an imitator of man. A tethered monkey, like Katherine’s, can therefore represent ascetic discipline, which is reinforced by his gesture towards the cross: faith over greed. This is the message Katherine is sending out there, just as (and after) Henry is replacing her.

So now let’s look at two other depictions of royals and their monkeys: Daniel Mytens’ posthumous portrait of Katherine’s sister-in-law, Margaret Tudor, the Queen Consort of Scotland (Royal Collection), and Anthony Van Dyck’s portrait of Charles I’s Queen, Henrietta Maria, with “her” dwarf Jeffrey Hudson and a monkey (National Gallery of Art). What a contrast between these two royal portraits, which were painted at about the same time (1620s-1630s, though Mytens’ painting harkens back to an earlier era). The monkeys have lost their message and been reduced to mere exotic pets, especially in the extravagant depiction of Henrietta Maria: here the monkey is still tethered, but to the dwarf rather than the Queen. This is a woman whose extravagance (and Catholicism) would contribute to the intensifying division between the King and Parliament, a division that would soon lead to the English Revolution. So perhaps I can teach with these particular portraits–if the depictions of monkeys can open up a larger discussion of events as significant as the English Reformation and the English Revolution, why not?

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Monkey and Henrietta Maria Van Dyck

 

 


Stumped by Shamrocks

I was going to do a rather straightforward post on the shamrock for St. Patrick’s Day, but it turns out that there is nothing straightforward about this plant, but rather an age-old confusion about what it actually is/was. The history of the shamrock and its association with Ireland is misty and murky: if indeed St. Patrick plucked a tender three-leaved (trefoil) sprig of some sprawling plant to illustrate the Holy Trinity we don’t know what that plant was, nor do we know precisely what plants Elizabethan authors like Edmund Campion and Edmund Spenser were referring to when they referenced the “wild” Irish eating shamrocks. The general consensus is that the word is derived from the gaelic seamróg, a diminutive form of seamair, meaning “clover”, but there is no botanical consensus that the shamrock is a clover variety: opinion seems to have been divided between various varieties of clover (trifolium) or wood sorrel (oxalis) for quite some time, with a weed called medic (medicago) mentioned occasionally as another candidate for the shamrock label. If you look at illustrations of the first two plants in one of the most lavishly illustrated medieval herbals, the Tractatus De Herbis (British Library MS Egerton 747), you can understand the confusion between these two look-alike, supposedly sacred plants.

Shamrock Egerton 747 Clover-001

Shamrock Egerton 747 Wood Sorrel-001

Clover (also called “Trinitas”) on the lower right and Wood Sorrel (also called “Alleluia”) on the upper left in BL MS. Egerton 747, c. 1280-1310.

The other source of confusion, much more modern and almost-exclusively American, I think, is between the shamrock (whatever it is) and the four-leaf clover. Both might be clovers, but if you embrace the trinitarian nature of the former, you can’t also have the secular charm of the latter–or can you? Americans seem to want it both ways, and consequently they fashion a St. Patrick’s Day holiday that combines a bit of faith and fortune, and much, much, much more fortification.

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St. Patrick’s Day postcards c. 1906-11 from the New York Public Library’s collection: a trefoil shamrock, four-leaf clovers, and both on one card.

There is much less confusion about how the shamrock (whatever it is) became inextricably identified with Ireland: this was much more a Victorian development than a medieval or early modern one. In the visual culture of the Great Britain, the Irish shamrock looms large, along with the English rose and the Scottish thistle (and occasionally the Welsh leek). These symbols appear together on all sorts of items–textiles, pottery, wallpapers–as both official “Arms” of the United Kingdom, decorations for royal palaces and personas, and patriotic embellishment.

The Rose, Thistle and Shamrock. The Floral Badges of England, Scotland and Ireland

Shamrock Curtain Border 1850s-001

Shamrock Garland Voysey-001

James King design for the National Arms of Great Britain, c. 1890; Norris & Company silk curtain border design for Windsor Castle, 1850s; C.F.A. Voysey textile design with garland of Tudor roses, thistles and shamrocks, c. 1915, Victoria & Albert Museum Collections.

These integrative designs are interesting aesthetically and politically, but you can’t beat a single shamrock (whatever it is), especially if it is made up of diamonds! Paired, perhaps, with a companion four-leaf clover brooch for extra luck. But even if there are no sparkling stones, a bright green shamrock (like the holiday it has come to represent) represents hopefulness and gaiety in the often murky month of March.

PicMonkey Collage

March Calendar Postcard with Little Girl Wearing Stole and Muff. 1906, March Calendar Postcard with Little Girl Wearing Stole and Muff

Diamond shamrock brooch, c. 1890, Victoria & Albert Museum; Art Deco platinum, diamond and jadeite clover brooch, c. 1935, Skinner Auctions; Ullman Manufacturing Co. calendar page for March, 1906.


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