Last time I wrote, I presented to you some fabulous twentieth-century representations of classical medicine by Ernest Board. One of his paintings showed Athenian black-figure vases used as flower pots. Now, these vases would never have been put to that use in Classical Athens. In fact, it looks like the Greeks and Romans did not put flowers in vases (I had a discussion on this topic with a colleague who came to the same conclusion). The ancients wore flowers as wreaths, crushed them to make perfume, put them in all sorts of decoctions, but apparently did not let them die in pretty vases.
Ceramic has been very much on my mind this week. Not that it is rarely out of my mind: I love china. I have an entirely childish collection of plates and cups with depictions of favourite characters from children’s books. A selection is on display on the same shelf as my Loeb Classical Library books. As these are among the books I consult the most in my academic work, I have ample opportunity to gaze at my collection. I should say, however, that I am not an obsessive collector. My purchases must come from charity shop – no ebaying here.
To get back to this week: on Monday I went on a bespoke visit of the National Museum Cardiff with a sizeable group of other Cardiff academics. We were offered a buffet of short tours, including visits of closed collections. I enjoyed them all, and I hope to return to visit the herbarium and botanical print collection more at length soon. However, it was during my last tour of the day (when my feet started to be very sore) that something really caught my eye.
I was on a tour of the collections of Welsh ceramic. Unlike the other tours, this took place in the open galleries, which I ought to know better… The curator was showing us some fine examples of botanical and zoological depictions on Welsh ceramic. These were lovely, but from the corner of my eye, I saw something different: a plate with a depiction of a flower (nothing unusual you will say) with its roots. It suddenly occurred to me that I had not seen roots on china plates very often.
I was so intrigued that I had to go back the next day during my lunch hour and take some photos. The plate in question is the work of Thomas Pardoe (1770-1823), a painter from Derby who worked mostly in Swansea and Bristol. The plate in question dates to the first quarter of the nineteenth century, and Pardoe found his inspiration in Curtis’ Botanical Magazine, as several other porcelain painters did at the time.
So why exactly am I so obsessed by roots? We are all used to seeing beautiful, mostly accurate, botanical representations of flowers on china or ceramic plates, but roots are rarely depicted. That is because roots are unsightly – fair enough. Still, a flower without its roots is a dead flower. It simply won’t survive. A flower with its roots, on the other hand, may plausibly be replanted. It may then reproduce, and the circle of life may not be broken.
Cut flowers – flowers without roots – are the ultimate item of pointless consumption. They are beautiful, but let’s face it, they are utterly useless beyond their decorative function. We may not like to admit it to ourselves, but when we purchase cut flowers, we partake in conspicuous consumption. (I should confess here that I do sometimes purchase cut flowers). Now, people today – as they did in the past – purchase (or receive) fine porcelain, not to use it on a daily basis, but to show off at special events. To me, it seems that cut flowers are the ideal companion of china plates: two beautiful, fragile, expensive, mostly useless items. When I see a flower with its roots on a porcelain plate, I perceive incongruity, dissonance. I find myself puzzled, and strangely enough, I like that plate even more.