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Books: The exquisite flowering of an artistic genius.

The Florilegium of Alexander Marshal at Windsor Castle. By Prudence Leith-Ross (Royal Collection, pounds 100). Reviewed by Richard Edmonds.

Delicate: Tulips by Alexander Marshal of the kind once grown for Louis XIII.

Gorgeous blossoms have made this year's Chelsea Flower Show the epitome of summer - even the Queen wore a lilac outfit to harmonise with nature when she visited Britain's best known floral paradise earlier this week.

Coincidentally (or perhaps by design) Royal Collection has published the sumptious Florilegium of Alexander Marshal in the collection of Her Majesty the Queen at Windsor Castle, at just the right moment, when lilies, roses, lilacs or whatever flower is uppermost in the thoughts of garden fanciers at this time of the year are flourishing.

This particular flower book, the only surviving example of an English 17th century florilegium, has been part of the royal collection since the reign of George IV and now resides in the holdings of the Royal Library at Windsor, where 20 original watercolours of Marshal's work, dating from the 17th century, are on view in the Gallery at the castle, until June 25. And marvellous things they are too, as this lovely book proves conclusively.

Flower painting has a long history and one of its greatest exponents was Ambrosius Bosschaert the Elder (1573-1621) who devoted himself exclusively to fruits and flowers. Bosschaert was one of those wonderful painters who caused the petals of his flowers to glow with light by setting them into niches where the landscape falls away behind.

Flowers lend themselves admirably to painting in water based pigments on vellum which itself provides an enduring support for the designs placed upon it and at the same time lends itself to book binding.

And, of course, as printing developed in Europe there was a spread of printed, hand coloured, botanical plates, but for those who had the money hand painted flower books grew in popular appeal.

Art has always sought to surpass nature and yet is constantly overwhelmed by the beauties of the natural world it reflects. You find this great contest between the self assertion of the artist and the modesty of nature in the work of Maria Sybilla Meriam, the first German botanical artist of renown, who published her Book of Flowers between 1675-1680 and then came Alexander Marshal's florilegium 'Exquisitely limned on vellum,' a remarkable thing which appeared in 1650 and was executed on commission from the gardener John Tradescant the Younger (1608-62) who inherited his gardens in Lambeth from his father.

Marshal and Tradescant were neighbours in Lambeth and by 1641 Marshal was working on the vellum sheets for this wonderful flower book, recording with dedicated artistry the plants that Tradescant was bringing back to England from Virginia.

After 1650, the industrious Alexander Marshal left Lambeth and turned up at Oatlands Palace, where he moved into royal circles and painted the exquisite floral borders on a vellum sheet showing miniature portraits of Charles 1, Henrietta Maria and their five children. Marshal's quality as a painter is evident (although it is not clear exactly how long he took to paint one of these remarkable vellum watercolours).

In 1653 his fame was such that he was offered, 'Upon a table, three hundred pieces of gold for his own Herbary' by Samuel Hartlib, a Prussian exile and friend of Marshal's who was settled in London and concerned with educational and social reform. It is nice to think that Hartlib probably had intimate access to Marshal's private gardens and his extensive collections of prints and drawings.

'The 18 Mai' writes Hartlib, 'Came Mr Marshal, the first time to my house to be acquainted with me. He hath begun to plant Licorice in Northamptonshire, and hath gotten, as I take it, of the true Rheubarb. He is a Merchant and hath lived for some years in France speaking French perfectly.'

Colour plate after colour plate in this magnificent book brings a luxurious touch of 17th century opulence into our lives, (and is the price of four modern university paperbacks, if you wish for a comparison). They prove conclusively that Alexander Marshal's drawings of flowers, fruit, birds and insects most certainly deserve the comment made in 1658 that his work was 'comparable with any now beyond the Seas.'

The research evidenced in Leith-Ross's excellent introduction is something to admire. Leith-Ross ranges over Marshal's work at Fulham Palace, his letters, and his eventual transition from watercolours to oil paints (due to failing eyesight) and provides us with a good selection of notes to deepen our understanding of the personalities that appear in the text.

And so we learn that 'for his pinks, Marshal (known amusingly as 'The Gentleman for Insects,') used the traditional rose-red or madder from the roots of the madder plant, while for his earth colours, the artist used ochres and carbon black. His highlights were achieved by leaving the paper bare.'

In a similar way to other 17th century and 18th century travellers, Marshal's florilegium had a bumpy passage before it ended up with the royals. A vandalising duchess cut out a page of Guernsey lilies, which is now lost and the same thing happened to a page showing bunches of 'blue grapes,' the latter neatly severing our connection with the great Redoute, whose fruits and flowers - also painted on vellum - appeared many years later to astonish the world and were painted in the Empress Josephine's garden.

In April 1777, Christie's (trading at that time as Christie and Ansell) sold the florilegium for pounds 52/10 shillings. By 1818, this remarkable book was wandering around Brussels where it was purchased for John Mangles of Berkshire. It was Mangles who presented it (for reasons not given) to George IV. It was a nice little gift - it may have done Mangles some good, who knows - but in any case it has been in the Royal Library ever since.

Since we cannot all dash to Windsor there is no reason why Marshal's vellum drawings cannot tour to various significant libraries in the kingdom.
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Author:Edmonds, Richard
Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:May 27, 2000
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