Wednesday, 6 April 2005

Flowers that never wither or die

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by Christopher Proudlove©

What would I buy if money was no object? A big house, a big garden … and the staff to run it all.

The thought occurred as I gave the patch of weeds we call a lawn its first cut after winter.

The half-hour it took was ample time to conjure up day-dreams of life-enhancing improvements to my lot!

I don't do gardening, but I do like a nicely laid out and well presented garden. Regrettably, I have neither time nor inclination to achieve either.

Sadly, I don't have the money to invest in an alternative: a collection of flower paintings by Dutch Old Masters.

It would have been an investment that would have paid dividends. Old Masters have risen in value almost without fail every year for the last 10 or more and the trend looks set to continue.

But I could afford to collect flower prints like the ones illustrated here.

The great thing is there are flower pictures to suit all pockets - from £100 to £1 million or more. You should buy the best you can afford.

Flower pictures look decorative in any setting; they don't need watering or weeding; they never wither and die and they don't get infested with greenfly.

The Dutch have always been entranced by flowers, particularly tulips, but they were luxuries that only the rich could afford.

In the 17th century, rich Dutch traders would bedeck their homes with flowers as a display of wealth that their peers could only grow ever more jealous about.

It was the Chinese who first painted flowers, mostly on silk and as early as the 7th century AD.

Sadly, the medium was only slightly more durable that the flowers themselves and such early pictures are known only by reference to them in contemporary writing.

In Europe, the first use of flowers in art was probably as decoration to medieval manuscripts and as backgrounds to religious paintings intended for churches and monasteries, the iris and lily being the most usually associated with the subject matter.

It would be asking for trouble to try to say who was the first European painter to paint a flower picture for the sake of the flowers alone.

Suffice it to say that the practice was established by about 1500 and was common place by about 1600, the lead being taken by artists in the Low Countries.

It was a turning point in the history of Western art, since most of what had gone before was of religious or mythological subjects painted in the main for churches and palaces.

However, the gradual development of trade between nations and the general increase in wealth brought many more luxury goods to a greater market.

Flowers were one such commodity which caught the imagination of European courts and the wealthy landowners who actively competed with each other to devise the most exciting and well-stocked gardens replete with exotic cultivars.

In the early 1630s, a single bulb of a rare or exotic tulip cost about three times the annual wage of a skilled manual worker or about the price of a smart Amsterdam town house - quite literally more than worth their weight in gold.

The only time since then that tulip bulbs have been so highly valued was during the "hunger winter" of 1944-45 when a Nazi blockade in Occupied Holland forced the beleaguered populace to eat them to stave off starvation.

The golden period of Dutch flower painting was roughly between 1650 and 1750, led in the main by Jan Davidsz de Heem (1606-1683/4).

Breathtakingly convincing

De Heem had a masterful control of colour and contrast, enabling him to construct three-dimensional illusions that were breathtakingly convincing.

His work was to influence an entire generation of artists into following his style, notably Jan Brueghal, Johannes Bosschaert, Jan Davidsz de Heem, Willem van Aelst, Rachel Ruysch and Jan van Huysum.

The downside of all this is the cost. The going price for a decent Old Master flower painting these days is more than I earn a year.

So what's the alternative? Well, consider the beautiful orchid prints here.

Each is an illustration by John Nugent Fitch (1840-1927), the botanical illustrator and lithographer famous for his "Orchid Album" first published in 1882.

Fitch was the nephew of the great botanical illustrator Walter Hood Fitch who between 1834-77 drew more than 2,700 plates for Curtis's Botanical Magazine.

Nugent Fitch took up the task for many years after his uncle's retirement in 1878.

Curtis's Botanical Magazine has been published continuously since 1787 and is now published for the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew.

William Curtis (1746-1799) was a trained pharmacist living in London. He was fascinated by the study of flora and insects and maintained a large garden where he grew beautiful exotic plants.

A large number of the prints found on the market today were published by Curtis and bear his address at St. George Crescent. They start at around £100 apiece

Another name to watch out for is Doctor Robert Thornton who inherited the family fortune and spent every penny of it in publishing a book of engraved illustrations of flowers.

In the end, it bankrupted him. Thornton even organised a lottery with copies of the book as prizes.

Sadly, the gamble did not pay off. Insufficient tickets were sold, leaving Thornton even further in the red and "was forever after a beggared man" to quote one contemporary report of the catastrophe.

Today, a copy of the complete book is priced in the realms of Old Masters, but single prints occasionally come on to the auction market and change hands for £2,000 to £3,000 apiece.

Thornton's interest in botany and natural history started as a boy. He kept a small botanic garden and an aviary and incurred his grandmother's wrath for spending his time catching insects and butterflies in her garden instead of minding his studies.

The idea for his flower engravings was formulated while at university. It would be a masterwork in many volumes that would surpass all others. His inheritance would fund it.

Grandly, he called it The Temple of Flora and no expense would be spared on the "botanical work of national importance".

Thornton commissioned paintings of the plants from leading botanical artists of the day and the most capable engravers to produce the plates.

Each measured 23 inches by 18 inches and were much acclaimed for their dramatic representation of the flowers in romantic landscapes.

It was a truly important work. Not only was it the first to depict the flowers in their natural surroundings, but the idea of printing them in colour was uncommon at this date and exceptionally expensive.

Thornton's fixation with detail and thoroughness led to many expensive alterations and changes in the search for perfection for each plate.
In some cases more than one plate was engraved and others were engraved first in aquatint and then in mezzotint.

By the time Temple of Flora was published, Britain was at war with Napoleon and the government raised taxes to pay for it, making money tight among Thornton's likely customers. Few copies of the book were sold.

Faced with mounting debt and disappointing sales, he successfully petitioned George III for royal assent to an Act enabling him to dispose of his collection of paintings, drawings and engravings to recover some of his expenses "by way of Chance".

The draw was made on May 6, 1813 but it was a flop and Thornton went home a broken man. He died in his London home in 1837, leaving so little property there was no point in him making a will.

Pictures show above:
A magnificent oil on panel by Jan van Huysum, dated circa 1730. His paintings inspired generations of artists but cost today more than I earn a year

Orchid prints by John Nugent Fitch and worth £100-200 each


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