Dear Readers, I was crunching my way through the first volume of William Feaver’s biography of Lucian Freud (all 600-odd pages of it), when I read this quote by Cedric Morris, founder of an art school that Freud went to as a young man. Mainly a painter of flowers and landscapes, Morris had what Feaver describes as a ‘waspish glee’ in crushing any idea that he liked painting plants because they were ‘pretty’:
“The aspect of belles et jolie fleures, or charming, gay, lovely, etc., mean no more to me than such qualities do in natural reaction to life in general: it is the attributes of grimness, ruthlessness, lust and arrogance that I find and, above all, the absence of fear in their kingdom”.
He goes on to describe some what is involved in producing a floral portrait:
“Be he able to express the blowzey (sic) fugitiveness of the poppy as could Jan van Huysum, the slightly sinister quality of fritillarias as Breughel the Elder, or the downright evil of some arums, the elegance, pride and delicacy of irises, the strident quality of delphiniums, the vulgarity of some double peonies, chrysanthemums, roses and most dahlias…..all this and much more the flower painter has to do”.
Well, Readers, I found this all very interesting. Whenever we look at a plant we clearly see it through the filter of our times and experiences, and it takes a tremendous strength of will to just see a flower as it is. Everything in the natural world labours under the weight of our expectations and projections, from the sly fox to the innocent lamb, the peaceful dove to the noble lion. It takes a special kind of worldview to see a rose as ‘vulgar’, or a delphinium as ‘strident’.
And, with our stop-motion cameras we can now observe the way that plants do battle in order to beat their competitors and access scarce resources such as light or nutrients, and also how they cooperate with one another – if you are able to access David Attenborough’s series ‘Green Planet’ I heartily recommend it. The denizens of the plant kingdom clearly have a much broader range of behaviours than we ever knew. However, to describe a plant as perfectly adapted to its environment as an arum as ‘evil’ seems to be taking anthropomorphism rather too far, even when it’s as midnight black as the one below.And yet. There is clearly a relationship between human beings and plants that it’s difficult to deny, at least from the human side. I was deeply sad when this lime tree fell in the recent storms – it had been a source of solace to me during Mum and Dad’s last years, and it always cheered me up. When I stood under its branches and listened to the drowsy humming of the bees feeding on its flowers, I felt cocooned and protected. I strongly suspect that the fondness was all in one direction, but there was no doubting that this tree was an individual. There are increasing calls for animals such as dolphins and apes to be granted ‘personhood’. I wonder if there will ever be an equivalent ‘personhood’ for plants, especially trees? It would be one way to protect them as every council in the country seems hell bent on cutting them down.
And is it impossible that plants have a relationship with us? On one level the answer is clearly yes, it’s impossible – plants don’t have brains, or nerves, or any of the other prerequisites for emotions. But as we learn more and more about the ‘wood-wide web’ (the way that trees can communicate with one another via the complex network of fungi that link them underground), I do wonder if plants have a much wider range of ‘feelings’ than we give them credit for. I also have friends who spend enough time with individual plants to start to ‘know’ them in a way that most of us don’t.
And in a way, whether a two-way relationship between us and plants exists is not really the question here. I believe that spending time with a particular landscape, or with particular plants, deepens our relationship with them. Drawing or painting a plant is another way to get to know them. We start to notice, and to care, and it starts to feel personal. What we’re looking at is no longer ‘just’ a patch of brambles or a hornbeam tree, but something much more individual, with its own quirks and ways of growing and reacting to its environment. This noticing is the beginning of a deepening love and care for what’s right outside our door. And in spite of what Morris says at the beginning about how a plant painter needs to look at his or her subject, I can’t help thinking that what shines through in his iris paintings is nothing short of pure affection for his favourite plants.
There is an interesting article about Cedric Morris as a plantsman and painter here.
Photo One by Opioła Jerzy, CC BY-SA 3.0 <http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/>, via Wikimedia Commons
Photo Two by By [https://www.flickr.com/people/15845498@N00 Se�n A. O’Hara] from Berkeley, CA, USA Arum palaestinum Uploaded by berichard, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10628149