Flowers and foliage have long been a primary source of inspiration for artists, dating back to ancient times. Floral shapes and representations have adorned paintings, pottery, porcelain, jewellery, tapestries, fabrics and furnishings for millennia. Interpretations have ranged from the realistically botanical to the flamboyantly decorative or the geometrically patterned.
In nature, the luscious colours and smells of flowers serve to attract bees and other pollinators, who fertilise and ensure reproduction. For humans, the fascination has been with the aesthetic and the symbolic. Flowering marks the seasons, and plants are at their most splendid in Spring, signalling the renewal of life, after the cold, barren winter. They bring inspiration to gardeners, florists and artists and through their skills, joy to us all. Flowers are an integral part of our social mores: they adorn weddings, bring comfort at funerals and speak of love, affection and thanks. In these current strange times, flowers and plants have brought us all delight and comfort during a period of anxiety and change.
The symbolism of flowers is complex and extensive. The lily is the symbol of purity, as seen in Renaissance paintings of the Virgin. Roses speak of love and the red rose, of passion. The lotus for ancient Egyptians symbolised the sun, creation and rebirth and the cherry blossom in Japan, still tells of gentleness and the acceptance of transience. Daisies represent innocence. Chrysanthemums in both Chinese and Japanese cultures are Imperial flowers and stand for longevity. Since WW1, the poppies of Flanders have come to symbolise memory and the honouring of wartime sacrifice. All cultures have their floral lexicon, which is reflected in their art. The Japanese call it Hanakotoba.
The admiration and language of flowers is a theme through time. The Lotus flower appears on Ancient Egyptian scrolls and King Tutankhamun’s grave yielded flower-shaped treasures. The ancient Greeks and Romans created wreaths and garlands, which decorate their architecture. Further East, graceful florals were woven on silk, first in ancient Imperial China and then, once the well-guarded secret of sericulture finally escaped the confines of the Empire, after two thousand years, in neighbouring countries and eventually into Europe, when skills had travelled along the Silk Road. Porcelain flourished during the Yuan dynasty in the 13th and in Japan, delicate cherry blossom, chrysanthemums, peonies, lotus flowers and carnations all featured on porcelain, parchment, woodblocks prints and fabrics.
Islam, which spread East and West from Mecca after the death of the Prophet Mohamed in 623 AD, has a rich artistic tradition. In Persia, fine carpets were woven with flowers and animals and tiles were decorated and baked to cover the walls of mosques. Closer to us, the town of Iznik in the Ottoman empire established its reputation for pottery in the 15th century, creating the iconic emblems of the elegant tulip and the innocent dianthus.
In Medieval Europe, rich tapestries were woven to cover the walls of freezing castles, with their typical ‘millefleurs’ backgrounds. Monks devotedly illuminated religion texts. The Renaissance period brought the Flemish art of still-life painting, fabulous arrangements of cut flowers in ornate vases, including new fashionable blooms, like the Tulip, imported from Turkey. The Belgian Pierre-Joseph Redouté, famous for his botanical roses, was court artist to Marie Antoinette, and survived the French Revolution to please the Empress Josephine. In 19th century France, the troubled Vincent Van Gogh repeatedly painted the magnificent ochre sunflowers of his adopted Provence and his fellow Impressionists gave us light-infused blossoms, water lilies and anemones. In Victorian England, the Arts & Crafts Movement produced its most famous exponent, the political activist, artist and designer, William Morris, whose art nouveau patterns have adorned walls and sofas ever since. Highly stylised floral patterns continued into the 20th century when Glaswegian Charles Rennie Mackintosh created his iconic roses. Later in the last century, Georgia O’Keeffe wowed art lovers with her dramatic single blooms and the Scottish Elizabeth Blackadder, now in her 80s, still paints delicate wildflowers, usually on a simple white background.
And these, as any art lover will tell you, are just the highlights.
Florals are probably the most frequently used designs on textiles, for clothing and furnishings alike. Again, there is a wide range of interpretation from reproductions of fine art to classic fabric-specific patterns, such as those of Morris and his colleagues, and as the world became more industrialised, commercial illustrators created iconic floral design brands like Laura Ashley and Cath Kidston.
At Fox & Chave, where our inspiration comes from art and decorative design, blooms abound on all our silks, for men and women alike. From all over the world and embracing centuries of styles and traditions, our flowers cover a variety of patterns and include many of the artists mentioned above. From the oldest plant in the world, the Gingko, in a pattern inspired by a cigarette case designed by Peter-Karl Faberge (he of enamel Egg fame), to a blousy summer bouquet by Jan van Kessel, we love our flowers and as the first virtual RHS Flower Show draws to a close this weekend, we pay tribute to Nature and her eternal beauty, so especially important to us today.