Reviews of the Week
The Beauty of Flowers
The Art of Botanical Illustration. By Wilfrid Blunt. (Collins. uts.) To someone living, as I do, in an old house deep in the country six or seven miles from any town, there is always a conjecture and a wonder as to how pictures and pieces of furniture reached here in the past along the muddy lanes. 1 suppose they were drawn along in heavy wagons from London to the post town, and then a farm cart was sent in to fetch them. But many objects, too, came from foreign countries and had to be shipped across the Channel, or arrived after much longer journeys from abroad, and 1 can never think of this ceaseless flow of objects of every description into England over many centuries without being reminded of the phrase used by the engineer-officer of a destroyer on which I was travelling in convoy up the North Sea coast during the war. He was telling me of his young days as a naval rating between decks, and of how every seaman brought home a tropical bird with him from Ceylon or South America, and he said: " When I was a young man the Bay of Biscay was a graveyard for parrots." The poor creatures died in confinement and had to be thrown overboard, and that was an end of them •, but what an extraordinary multitude of other things did arrive, and are still here I Flowers, for living instances ! 1 wonder how the first lilac trees, the pride of Henry VIII's garden at Nonesuch Palace, reached these shores. And the pinks, and the white lavender bushes loved by Henrietta-Maria ; or the lirst pine- apple ever raised in England which in the well-known conversation piece is being shown by the royal gardener to Charles II ?
I believe no one will be able to turn over the pages of Mr. Wilfrid Blunt's The Art of Botanical Illustration without, in an appropriate phrase, " harbouring " such thoughts. There are forty-six plates in colour, and about as many again in black and white, a most glittering and intoxicating gallery of flowers: The text is as interesting and lively as the illustrations, and one compact mass of information. In fact it is comparable to one of those old- fashioned bull's-eye peppermints the joy of which was that they were so long a time in consuming. To many, indeed to most, readers it will be a new world of beauty. So few living persons know or have seen the originals of these lovely drawings. Rightly and appropriately the marvellous drawing by Diirer of the corner of a field (from the Albertina) is reproduced in colour ; and there are one or two plates from Dr. Thornton's Temple of Flora, which is now as well known and popular as the wild geese and cloudy skies of Peter Scott. These few things apart, it will hardly be possible for any reader to turn to such or such an illustration, and say: " Why, here is my favourite drawing of a gentian or tulip ! "—for this is a closed and private world, now opened and published for the. first time. And if it does nothing else it is to be hoped it will flrevent people tearing to pieces and framing the plates from old ower-books—or worse still making them into lampshades. This 'Should be put upon the statute as a punishable offence ; for' at 'the'' present rate of destruction' there will be none left in a' few lears' time. Where Is one to begin ? There is a superb jar of iris, lily and- columbine, which is a fragment from the great Portinari altar-piece by Hugo van der Goes in the Uffizzi. Whenever I think of this, and 1 know it well from having lived long in Florence, I am happy in realising that we are living in the great reign of the iris. This flower is flourishing, now, as never before, and is developing along just the formal lines that would have delighted the old flower- painters. The iris is a flower that must be painted, now, like the delphinium in its waxing glory. For there could never be a painter famous for his rhododendrons. That is a flower that does not lend itself to drawing. It will not " sit still and behave " (I speak in terms of aesthetic) as will the iris or delphinium, the rose, the auricula, the lily, or the tulip. Or the peony. Those have better manners, and grow as to the manner born to help the painter. If you prefer wild flowers there is a knapweed drawn..in water- colour by a Fleming in the sixteenth century, which is 'a model of its kind. Or an incredibly beautiful gentian by Simon Verelst, though this raises a problem of its own for G. excisa, strictly speaking, is a rock-garden plant and has never been found in nature. Neverthe- less, the gentian breathes to its admirers of the mountain tops and will not be tamed. In general, the illustrations are of herbs or formal florist's flowers, as we would expect, and the reader and flower-lover must take his choice. For myself, I am taken, particu- larly, by auricula drawings (there are two by little-known painters and one by Ehret) and by drawings of pinks, carnations and tulips, for I think these " draw " of themselves and can be miraculously beautiful in handling. The flowers are such wonderful triumphs of human patience and ingenuity, and by selection and re-selection they follow the taste and admirations of their day. But, then, among the plates in this book there are the exact opposite to these ; the various wild flowers, for instance, drawn on the margin of a letter (1792) from Nikolaus van Jacquin, a painter of flower-books from Vienna whom I have never greatly admired before in his botanical illustrations. And in immediate contradiction of all that 1 have just been saying there is a thrilling, " structural " lithograph of a rhododendron by Fitch, the Victorian botanical painter, which looks more like a dissection of the propeller and parts of the engine of an aeroplane !
I hope that I am conveying something of the excitement of reading and looking through this book of flower drawings. I shall be failing in my purpose if I do not do this. Who is the greatest of the flower-painters ? Mr. Blunt, himself, is for Francis Bauer, one of two brothers of German birth who .worked much in England (c. 1790-1840), and it is the truth that the work of both brothers is entirely unknown to the public. Ferdinand, the younger brother, accompanied Matthew Flinders on his explorations in Australia, and many of his drawings of Australian plants are entbnbed in the library of the Natural History Museum in South 1Cehiington, a neighlaourbcod of vihich,it is Aifficult to think without being reminded upon thist Sundat ft.OrOnon of the liumoritt " Beachcomber " who, when it was the question (his own invention) of ,travel posters for London upon the lines of those which advertise holidays in France, " Nice—ses Bataille4,:de.Fleurs," " Monte Carlo —son Carnaval," etc., made the suggestion of " Londres—ses Dimanches." No fewer than two thousand more unpublished drawings of Australian, plants, so Mr. Blunt says in a footnote, ate in the Natural History ,Museum in Vienna. Australia, a continent which is now searching for its works of art, will no doubt hear of this mass of drawings by Ferdinand •Batier and perhaps one •day publish them. I know his work from his wonderful plates for Lambert's A Description of the Genus Pinus. The 'other brother, Francis Bauer, lived most of his life at Kew, and his finest paintings are in the Natural History Museum. The work of this pair of brothers should surely not be left at that, It must be published and made accessible. Georg Dionysius Ehret (1708-1770) is my own favourite, born at Heidelberg, but who lived much of his life in England. His draw- ings are unequalled for manliness and dignity of style. But the earlier Frenchman, Nicholas Robert, and a hitherto unknown Dutchman, P. van Kouvvenhoorn. are shown in splendour. Nicholas Robett's watercolours upon vellum are among the miracles of flower-painting. It is impossible to conceive of anything more beautiful or delicate of their kind. Redoutd is given his proper stature ' • a beautiful flower-painter, but not more so than one or two of his contem- poraries. But this book is likely to revive interesg in old flowers, and not only in the painters, and in this way it may have a considerable influence upon taste. The scent has gone out of the
rose and comes back into it when we see these drawings. With roses, pinks, carnations, tulips, there is now a definite trend of taste towards the revival of old forms, a direction which the present-day cult for the camellia will make more certain still. For the camellia developed along the same formal lines as the flowers afore- mentioned, and the new hybrids and old varieties rediscaered alike confirm this formal disposition.
The one omission in this book, so far as taste and a little knowledge go, is that Curtis' Beauties of Flora, a more beautiful book even' than Dr. Thornton's Temple of Flora, is not given its due of praise. Curtis has only ten plates ; but the plate of tulips is even more w6nderful than that in Thornton. And there are plates of poly- anthus, of anemones, of hyacinths and ranunculuses, that are unsurpassed. It is a work of extreme rarity. And this compendium of information and love of botanical drawing does not mention Verschaffelt's Camellias. No notice of a book must consist only of praise. But, this said, it seems to me there is nothing more to say, in criticism. The Art of Botanical Illustration is unlikely to be superseded, except for particular studies, for a very long time.