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The Language of Flora and Fauna

NEARLY 3,300 years separate the earliest image on this page from the latest.

The British Museum's fragment of an Egyptian wall painting comes down to us from the Eighteenth Dynasty, or early part of the New Kingdom. It was found in a tomb in Thebes and dates from about 1425 BC.

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The William Morris chintz - one of his intricate repeating designs printed on cotton - was registered as a pattern by Morris and Co. between 1882 and 1885. He refers to it - "they are doing Brother Rabbit successfully" - in a letter of 1881 from Merton Abbey, Surrey, where he had just moved his workshops from London. Morris was an English poet, artist, and designer.

Though it may seem a somewhat tenuous connection, these two works have in common a vigorous appreciation of flora and fauna, which is also shared by the other three images shown. The first two are details from a Roman wall painting, the interior walls painted like a garden, in a house in the town of Pompeii, Italy. These wall paintings have been dated in the second quarter of the first century AD - that is, before an earthquake hit the town in AD 62. Surviving the earthquake, they were then, like the res t of the town and surrounding area, suddenly buried deep in volcanic ash when Vesuvius erupted in AD 79. And there they remained until brought to light again, exactly 1,900 years after the eruption, in the excavations which are still, today, going on.

Then we have a medieval tapestry that dates from the period between 1500 and 1525. It is Franco-Netherlandish. It was made for one Gabriel Miro, whose arms, in the form of a shield with a mirror (a pun on his name), hang from the principal tree.

So, chronologically speaking, these four works are spaced out so widely as to be completely without connection in terms of period. Nor can one of them be said to have in any way directly influenced any of the others. The closest to "influence," in fact, is the extreme fascination Morris had for all things medieval, whether literature, stained glass, or tapestry. "The Arms of Miro" tapestry, though an example of a kind of tapestry design which Morris certainly did like, and which he reinvented in Victoria n terms, is not directly connected with the "Brother Rabbit" printed fabric or his other medievalizing designs for wallpapers, cloths, or tapestries.

It is easy enough, however, to see how this type of so-called millefleurs tapestry, with its all-over pattern of a great many flowers and plants interspersed with birds and animals, was aped by Morris. His "Brother Rabbit" design is even more intensely an all-over pattern, in which creatures are fitted, almost to the point of camouflage, into the density of the foliage-and-flower pattern.

The "flora and fauna," which are at the heart of each of these four works, have been depicted for various reasons. But what all the works together do show is how birds, animals, and plants span the centuries as persistent iconography worthy of "art," as evidence of life, as decoration, as symbol. There is something both amusing and stimulating about the beautiful (if not always accurate) use of cats or nightingales, of stags or rabbits, and a whole host of plants, as subject-matter by artists as remote f rom each other as ancient Egyptians and Romans, French or Flemish craftsmen of the Middle Ages, and a Victorian designer at odds with his time. Animals and plants are the common language of artists otherwise separated by time, space, culture, and by the developing revolutions of history.

It would be a mistake, even in the case of William Morris's design, to simply relegate the flora and fauna in these works to a merely decorative function. In his case, they are primarily decorative, it is true, but one of the differences between his designs and those of many of his contemporaries is that he revitalized his patternmaking with fresh observation. He was directly inspired by plants and birds in his garden in many of his designs, as well as by medieval precedent.

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In "the Arms of Miro" there is excellent reason for supposing that the entire tapestry is a conscious emblem of its patron, and not just the shield, or the Ptolemaic sphere flanked by two angels, representing "love" and "belief" according to the inscribed motto. In the Middle Ages and after, tapestries were status symbols and served to block drafts. (And, incidentally, tapestries had earlier been considered by both Romans and Greeks to be essential parts of the furnishing of a stately home, the Romans im porting most of theirs from places abroad, including Egypt.) The best medieval tapestries must have had their designs supplied by painters. Lesser ones were doubtless put together by the workshop artisans using stock material. But the "Miro" tapestry's flowers, animals, and birds were probably specifically designed for it, and are likely to be symbolic of Miro or his family. In other words, pretty though they are, they are not only pretty.

The Roman garden murals from Pompeii are included in a touring exhibition "Rediscovering Pompeii," now in London. Their freshness, as with many of the ash-preserved paintings of the Vesuvius area, is remarkable. You almost feel the fluent application of paint to wall took place last week. But it is also the verism of the plants and birds in this interior "garden" that give it such immediacy. [B The Romans clearly had enormous affection for the small details of nature, for bird and flower. This they shared with the Egyptians, and their affinities as artists with ancient Egypt is quite frequently shown by "Egyptianizing" forms in their paintings. The irony of this stylistic quotation is that while such Egyptianizing harks back to Dynastic art, the effect of the annexation of Egypt to Rome was to destroy once and for all the long, slow development of ancient Egyptian art.

In these particular Pompeiian paintings, however, there is no direct reference to Egyptian art - just the revitalization in purely Roman style of a recurring love of humans for birds and plants. And this love of nature, as it is in Egyptian art, is projected into an "ideal" world, a kind of paradise of the imagination.

The Egyptian artists who made the tomb painting shown here were depicting the deceased nobleman, Nabamun, as he had been in life - with his family, in a skiff on the Nile hunting birds - idealized for transportation into his afterlife. The ideal was underpinned by the observed. The fragment showing Nabamun hunting birds and fish idealizes his nobility and heroism while recording with startling conviction the panic and chaos of the birds he hunts.

The hunting scene, affirming this pursuit as a pastime of the great and noble, was also a frequent subject of medieval tapestries.

The Roman garden murals were domestic decoration. They affirmed tamed nature enjoyed, a peaceful relationship of the inhabitants of the house with growing and flying things. This room was for living in; it was not a tomb. Yet the Egyptian tomb is full of life too, suggesting continuation. The Pompeiian birds and plants, most of them accurate enough to be identified, were not simply a matter of bringing the outdoors indoors. Like the medieval tapestries, the flora and fauna here were likely to have been c hosen for their symbolism. Neither the Egyptians, the Romans, the medieval tapestry designers nor, presumably, Morris worried a jot if they brought together in one place birds which are never seen together in nature, or flowers from different regions or seasons.

But then that, from the Pharoahs to the Victorians, is what is generally known as "artistic license."

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