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The Botanical room part 4 -Sniffing the air

Updated: Oct 15, 2022

So vacuum cleaners, I have the vacuum cleaner called Henry, it has a face on it, it mocks me. One of the things that will really get on my nerves about Henry is that he doesn’t like going around corners, he will push out one of his little wheels to stick on the corner of the skirting board and then dares to smile at me. His nose often falls off, his tail doesn’t allow me to do the whole house without having to turn off and plug him in again somewhere else, and all the while he smiles. Don’t get me wrong I appreciate his help, but I can do without the supercilious grin and a constant returning to help him take a corner or get him around a piece of furniture. If you pull him forward too hard he topples over just to spite you and we won’t even go into the fit he has at door thresholds.

Stay with me.

I actually like cleaning, my mother was extremely house proud and although she didn’t really encourage or make us do any proper cleaning, I did quite enjoy dusting and I really enjoyed sitting in the cupboard under the stairs where the hoover was kept (not part of the cleaning process, I know). For those of my dear painting friends that live in America in Britain we always refer to the vacuum as a hoover, I don’t know if you do too? I guess they were the original popular manufacturers of the vacuum cleaner in the UK. I even refer to hoovering when I’m mopping up paint with my paintbrush. Okay, backtrack, I guess I have to explain why I like sitting in the hoover cupboard, well it had the most delicious smell and it was the sort of scent that one could almost imagine eating. I would sit in the dark space and sniff in as much as the smell as I could, it was the best place to hide when playing hide and seek because I could combine playing the game while sniffing the air (though my siblings soon guessed my preferred hiding place). I have never come across a scent as intoxicating as that cupboard aroma was to me,a combination of the old hover, polish and leather shoes that lived in there; in fact, it was one of the reasons I didn’t want to leave that house. But we did leave the house in 1976 and I hope whoever lived in that house afterward appreciated the wonderful scent of the hoover cupboard under the stairs.

I wish I didn't need a vacuum but my house manufactures dust at an alarming speed, I recall my Nan had a plastic push around dust collector, she would push it up and down the hall and I remember it working very well, I have one from old my dolls house :) and now have it on display like some family heirloom.

To dusting, my first glimpse of a pretty dusting cloth was made of soft lemon coloured brushed cotton and printed with a minute pink and blue 'chintz-like' pattern. It was too heavenly to dust with and I coveted it so much that it was eventually made into a doll's bed jacket for me. I bought a similar duster some years later just for the memories and still have it in a box, as though it was a valuable treasure (it's there all folded neatly in my botanical room).

The lemon 'chintz-like' duster was my first intriguing introduction to the lure of floral fabric, chintz (a printed, multicoloured, cotton fabric) with a glazed finish comes in and out of fashion like flared trousers, one minute you love it and the next you wouldn’t see fit to go near it in a charity store. However, its pretty allure remains with me, and even when the style gurus say ‘it’s out' I will still have it somewhere in the home, discretely styled so as not to offend but ready to re-emerge when the timing is right; in fact, my whippet, Grayson, looks mighty pretty asleep in a chintz nest.

There is just something about the balance of a posy connected in patterns with perhaps ribbons or trails of ivy or interspersed with little buds (as I write this I am getting excited to rummage through my fabric stash in search of inspiration).

Nan had blue 'chintz-like' wallpaper in the bathroom, pink 'chintz-like' wallpaper in the pink bedroom, and a grey carpet with pink and yellow bunches of flowers, at some point that will be fashionable again I am sure. I am convinced I would have made more crazy interior decisions had I not married a symmetrically inspired minimalist, the poor thing has had to suffer my ways for decades.

Over the years I have collected images of floral 'chintz-like' fabric, studied the colours and the flowers used to create them, so imagine my thrill when on an SBA (Society of Botanical Artists) trip to the Victoria and Albert museum I was introduced to the most beautiful book containing hundreds of original calico floral based designs, all hand-painted in the 18th century, and known as the Kilburn Album.

(Above is a snapshot of one of William Kilburn's designs; when you can, book an appointment at the V&A to see the Album and be prepared to fall in love)

William Kilburn was born in Dublin in 1745, his father was an architect but William began his career as an apprentice calico printer and was a keen etcher in his spare time. After his father died he moved to east London where he met botanist William Curtis who noted his illustrative and etching skills. Kilburn began working for Curtis creating exact plant portrait watercolours and etchings of the plants for gardening trade cards and helping Curtis on the plates for the book Flora Londinensis, published 1777–78.

Kilburn eventually left for more lucrative work in the textile industry working as a calico designer in Wallington Surrey, (we used to go shopping in Wallington with Mum when we were kids, I had no idea there would have been a design printing factory there, it seems an unlikely place, I remember one time my brother realised he had come out to the shops in his slippers by mistake! I also remember, at about 5 years old, losing mum in what I think was a Liptons supermarket, that was terrifying).

Anyway back to Mr. Kilburn, his designs are quite beautiful, delicate, and clever often including seaweed in the patterns. He made a very nice living, however, Peel & Co a Lancaster mill along with some other mills began to create cheaper copies of his work, within days of his creation and this would eventually greatly affect the income from his designs. So he took his case to Parliament, requesting design copyright protection in the textile industry. Eventually, the House of Commons proposed a bill to control plagiarism in the industry, there was much uproar from the Scottish and Northern England mills, who feared their trade would collapse, but brilliantly the bill was passed in May 1787, "An Act for the Encouragement of the Arts of designing and printing Linens, Cottons, Callicoes and Muslins by vesting the Properties thereof in the Designers, Printers, Proprietors for a limited Time." (the "limited time" was for two months from the date of first publishing).

Despite Williams's success, the London trade dropped off as a direct result of the grand northern powerhouse competition, the London companies sadly failed and William was finally declared bankrupt in April 1802 and passed away in poverty.

He had lived a good life for a while so it is sad to hear of his sad end and not a good outcome for him after his hard work to establish a major part of the copyright law.

So, the day I saw Williams designs for the first time in that beautiful book was a perfect 'billy day' for me, I was introduced to a designer of supreme talent with a marvelous, albeit sad, human story (I love a tragic romantic story) and images that will continue to inspire me to keep painting and permit me to stretch and relish the abilities I have, a fortuitous and memorable day.

What is it that special power that flowers have over us? Flowers have some special pull, to lead us to illustrate, to grow, to manipulate and arrange to inspire and show love? Artists and gardeners throughout time are irresistibly drawn to celebrate them in their works, and so it continues and we as modern botanical artists know only too well the passion that flowers inspire.

Below are two of my latest chintz inspired works, one is the 'Rose Tee' a painting created from found wire in my garden, and spectacular roses from a plant given to me as a housewarming gift from a dear friend. I arranged the wire and roses to suggest a tee-shirt silhouette and played with light to create shadows for a 3D effect, with the hard and soft elements both representing my new home, finding things and making things.

My second image below is a crop from my latest work, 'The Dressmakers Bodice' a play on 2D and 3D with roses coming forward or laying flat, this piece evokes a scenario where the dressmaker plays with ideas around a bodice pattern, it is still on the drawing board as I write this blog, I often take weeks or months playing with ideas and compositions, they are my playtime, a flight of fancy, they will stand in the corner and each time I return to the studio I add to or amend the pictures. Some never make it into the daylight, some are just for me. Each is a homage to the flowers and fabrics that have inspired me throughout my life.

By the way

A good tip for any spiders wishing to escape the hoover- the best place to hide is in the middle of the back of the radiator, you heard it here first.

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