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Amongst the different floral genres in Britain today, there is a trend that one could say takes its inspiration from the still life paintings by the 17c and 18c Dutch Masters, enhanced with British home grown flowers. A source of inspiration that is essentially botanically led.

The definition of Still Life is a work of art depicting mostly inanimate subject matter, typically commonplace objects which may be either natural (food, flowers, dead animals, plants, rocks, or shells) or man-made (drinking glasses, books, vases, jewelry, coins, musical instruments and so on). These item contained allegorical symbolism with either a religious or mythological theme that had a moral message.  If the artist painted a skull, timepiece or a snuffed out candle this represented the passage of time and reminds the viewer of death and the fragility of human life, and the brevity of our existence.

Flowers have long been included as a still life subject.  Different flowers hold different meanings. They can symbolize innocence, the four seasons, or religious symbols. The rose for instance, stands for love, the lily for purity, the sunflower for devotion and ivy, as an evergreen symbolises eternal life.

The bee, as well as the butterfly, are symbols of hope, representing the soul and because they are rather delicate, are a reminder to the fragility of life.

The candle, has lots of meanings. It can indicate the passing of time, faith in God (when its burning). When extinguished, it means death, and the corruption of matter. It can symbolise light in the darkness of a lonely individual, or the light of Christ, purification or cleansing.

Many paintings were commissioned by those wanting to show off their wealth, a still life floral painting depicted the very expensive flowers found in their gardens, particularly the tulip as a single bulb could sell for a whole estate during the Tulip Fever era.

Hans Bollongier

Painting of tulips during the Tulip Fever era.

When a viewer looks at a work of art, they are bringing with them all of their life experiences, all of their unique memories, all of their knowledge and understanding of the universe so far. Their mind interacts with the artwork as their eyes travel over the piece. Therefore what one person experiences when they look at a flower arrangement will not be exactly the same as someone else, meaning that they may interpret the design differently depending on their understanding and knowledge.  There is always a mysterious gap between intention and interpretation, and such is the beauty of communication especially through education, where many trends and styles are explored.

Rachel Ruysch

18c Dutch Master floral still life painting.

But when you look at these beautiful paintings closely you can see that the flowers are not from a single season but from all seasons. The artists would have sketched the flowers throughout the year before planning the composition to include them all. The composition itself would be in the artists  minds eye, rather than painting from an actual floral arrangement in front of them, as they painted to fit all the flowers within the oblong canvas. This is easily identified in the gaps between the flowers, especially noticeable is the placement of larger flowers at the top with fine delicate flowers uncrushed near the centre.

So what have we learnt from these pictures?  We are drawn to the individual flora which inspires us to create designs that are botanical in their inception, but we can also take from the artists the opportunity of giving our designs symbolic messages of love, hope and compassion.

At the Academy of Floral Art we look at the many sources of inspiration, drawing upon ideas from many genres, art, architecture, fashion, interiors, current trends and even abstract to enhance our creativity and promote thought provoking design.

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