Botany for Amateurs: The Decorative Arts

Leontodon autumnalis, Flora Danica, Tab. MDXXIII, 1816. Art Gallery of Ontario.

If “craft,” which I wrote about in the last post, can have a connotation of not being serious, then “decoration” is even less worthy of serious consideration.  Yet most of us have much more contact with the decorative arts—in our homes, our clothes, and daily encounters—than with “serious” art.  Years ago, I wrote an article called “Jellyfish on the Ceiling, Deer in the Den” (Flannery, 2005).  The title obviously signals that I produced it in my pre-botany days, but there were a lot of plants included.  My argument was that humans have a proclivity for surrounding themselves with living specimens including houseplants and pets, but even more with representations of flora and fauna.  Perhaps ultraminimalist homes are exceptions, but even there, a striking potted tree or orchid might emerge from the white walls and upholstery. 

            Most of us go much further than that, with botanical prints, animal figurines, and in the children’s room, dinosaurs.  My contention was that all this biota manifests what Edward O. Wilson (1984) calls “biophilia,” an innate human attraction to other living things.  He argues that such an adaption would be useful because until recently humans were immersed in the living world and needed to pay attention to it and appreciate it.  Even though many of us live in urban areas, we still feel that pull, and so create indoor lifescapes.  I’m bringing this up because it gives me a chance to mention the current trend, at least in certain circles, to used framed herbarium specimens in interior decoration. 

            During the pandemic I treated myself to a subscription to The World of Interiors, a glossy British magazine that presents homes from the ultramodern to the medieval.  There have been several articles over the past few years in Interiors and other publications with pictures of rooms with series of framed specimens hanging on the walls of living rooms, bedrooms, or even bathrooms.  Most of these sheets seem to be antiques, probably 19th century albums dismembered because they fetched higher prices when framed, otherwise the interior decorators might not know what to do with them.  Most are labeled at least with the plant name, but in some cases with more information.  Much as I believe in biophilia and think of specimens as works of art, I wouldn’t want them in my home.  I depresses me that these representatives of biodiversity have ended up where they will probably never be databased or used to further our knowledge of the natural world.

            But such examples do bolster the biophilia argument, and there is evidence that even representations of nature can improve a person’s mood and outlook (Kellert, 1997).  So why couldn’t a few herbarium specimens brighten a day?  And there are other connections between botany and the decorative arts.  The 18-volume Flora Danica (1761-1783) was lavishly illustrated, and the plates used as source material for the equally lavish dinnerware.  The set was created by the Royal Danish Porcelain Manufactory for the Danish royal family, not surprising since the business was owned by the Danish king (Ackers, 2010).  This is either a botanist’s dream or nightmare:  would food seem palatable with such botanical treasures peeking through the gravy?  Another example is the work of Christopher Dresser, a 19th-century British designer and professor of artistic botany.  He produced a series of articles on botany adapted to the arts, wrote a book on Rudiments of Botany (1859), and created botanical diagrams.   Another case is that of the botanical illustrator in the early days of Curtis’s Botanical Magazine, William Kilburn, who left this work to create wallpaper and fabric designs (Nelson, 2008).  This turned out to be a much more lucrative business.

            Before I end, I have to get back to the jellyfish on the ceiling from my article.  It refers to Ernst Haeckel, famed for his Art Forms in Nature that was such an inspiration to artists and illustrators at the turn of the 20th century.  He was a zoologist who specialized in studying jellyfish.  He did in fact have jellyfish decorations on his ceiling and on tables, lamps, vases, etc.  Lest you think botanists are any less obsessed, the “botanical kitchen” in the Marie-Victorin Herbarium in Montreal is equipped not only with a toaster oven but wallpaper made from scans of specimens from the collection, in a 4 by 4 sheet repeat.  The Oxford Herbarium was once located in its historic botanic garden, which just celebrated its 400th anniversary.  It has been moved to larger quarters, but there is still an “Herbarium Room” with historical displays in the former herbarium at the garden.  The room is papered not with specimens, but the next best thing, prints from Hortus Elthamensis (1732) written by Johann Dillenius, the first botany professor at Oxford University who also created not only the illustrations, but engraved many of the plates as well.  This might be a homage to that great interior decorator Carl Linnaeus, who designed a famous piece of botanical furniture to store his specimens and papered his bedroom with prints from Georg Ehret’s work.  In fact one of the cabinets is now in the print-lined room at his Hammarby farm.  The 18th-century wallpaper has not fared well and needs restoration or conservation work.  However the paper is so fragile, there is difference of opinion on the damage that could be done by any intervention (Cullhed, 2008).  Maintaining a home is never easy.

References

Ackers, G. (2010). The ferns of Flora Danica—Plants and porcelain. Pteridologist, 5, 207–213.

Cullhed, P. (2008). The conservation of iconic objects and Linnaeus’ books and wallpaper. In The Linnaean Legacy (pp. 135–140). London: Linnean Society of London.

Flannery, M. C. (2005). Jellyfish on the ceiling and deer in the den: The biology of interior decoration. Leonardo, 38(3), 239–244. https://doi.org/10.1162/0024094054029056

Kellert, S. (1997). Kinship to Mastery: Biophilia in Human Evolution and Development. Washington, DC: Island Press.

Nelson, E. C. (2008). William Kilburn’s calico patterns, copyright and Curtis’s Botanical Magazine. Curtis’s Botanical Magazine, 25(4), 361–373.

Wilson, E. O. (1984). Biophilia. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

3 thoughts on “Botany for Amateurs: The Decorative Arts

  1. Pingback: Art: Plants in Three Dimensions | Herbarium World

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