‘Blow Gabriel Blow’*

* Cole Porter ‘Anything Goes’ 1934

When, at New Year, I walked into the museum in Prague devoted to the artist Alphonse Mucha, the last thing I expected to find was the inspiration for Weeds Roots & Leaves’ first blog post of 2019. But there it was, amidst the stylised theatrical posters and advertising material, almost always portraying beautiful young women in dreamy poses dressed in flowing gowns with luxuriant hairstyles. In a section devoted to the artist’s drawings I found a couple of botanical studies. One featured the Czech national tree, Tilia cordata, the small leaved lime or linden, the latter somehow more appropriate in central Europe. Its layout and precision reminded me of the remarkably detailed botanical art in the Shirley Sherwood Gallery of Botanical Art at Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

But the drawing that most attracted me was of Brugmansia or Angel’s Trumpets. With fine pencil strokes, Mucha illustrates the elongated trumpet of this tropical tree/shrub’s flower. Subtly, the image transmutes into designs for lampshades and light fittings and what might be a rather lethal looking hair ornament. In turn of the century Prague, as in other European cities, Art Nouveau drew inspiration from nature, most notably in the art and designs of Alphonse Mucha.  Having seen the detail of the study of the Angel’s Trumpets I can appreciate the accuracy of the plant-inspired decorations in Mucha’s work. Further examination of the other images on display revealed that the majority include floral motifs, either entwined in the subject’s hair or as a decorative border to the painting or print. I found sunflowers, irises, scarlet geraniums, poppies: on an overcast late December morning an art gallery turned out to be the best garden in the city!

Finding the Brugmansia study spurred me into delving further into the genus of which I knew very little, other than being able to recognise its large and distinctive trumpet or bell-like flowers. Brugmansia is a member of the nightshade family, Solanaceae, and like its relatives potatoes and tomatoes, originates in South America. Sadly the seven species in the genus are now known only in cultivation and it is classed as extinct in the wild. In tropical areas Brugmansia can grow into a large shrub or a tree up to 11m high. Its spectacular flowers exude a strong fragrance, usually most intense in the evenings to attract pollinating moths. In southern Colombia the plant has been used as a hallucinogen in spiritual ceremonies. Whilst most parts of the plant are poisonous if ingested, it has been found that some of its properties have medical value, including as an anaesthetic. Numerous cultivars of Brugmansia have been developed including B. ‘Alphonse Mucha’!

The images which follow are of the specimens on display in Kew’s newly restored Temperate House, which I plan to make the subject of a future post.

On the subject of art inspired by natural forms, from this April the works of glass sculptor Dale Chihuly are to be displayed in Kew Gardens for the second time in 14 years. I remember that first exhibition clearly and recall fantastically entwining ‘chandeliers’ comprising numerous hand-blown tendrils in an array of vivid colours and a canoe moored near the Gunnera on the banks of the Palm House Pond brimming with multi-coloured glass gourds. Sinuous blue and clear glass forms resembling some exotic aquatic creature arose amidst the Nymphaea in the pool in the central zone of the Princess of Wales Conservatory. For me the 2005 Chihuly exhibition has been one of the most effective art installations at Kew in recent years. That is not to denigrate more recent events such as the garden-wide exhibition of the works of Henry Moore in Kew’s 250th anniversary year 2009. And Kew proved an ideal setting for David Nash’s sculptures in wood in 2012.

I’d like to think that from April I might find a glass sculpture inspired by the frilly skirted blooms of Brugmansia. If so, I believe that Mucha, master at translating botanical subjects into works of art, would approve.

3 thoughts on “‘Blow Gabriel Blow’*

  1. A few years ago, the illustration for the common ‘Charles Grimaldi’ Brugmansia in the Sunset – Western Garden Book was from the garden of my colleague in Southern California. I do not remember which year it was. I have that particular publication at work.

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  2. I’m not sure any Brugmansia in the UK could be described as common. Although we haven’t had a harsh winter yet, I imagine they wouldn’t survive a big freeze. I believe most are grown in conservatories etc. and perhaps taken outside once danger of frost has passed. How special to see an image of a colleague’s plant in print.

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