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Rediscovering a wonder of childhood; A new book revives Richard Edmonds' fascination for something he first encountered in the school classroom.

Byline: Richard Edmonds'

The Curious History Of The Tulip Vase Patricia Coccoris (Cortex Design,pounds 38) When I was at junior school, we had a nature table, and among the dead beetles, twigs, feathers and wild flowers, there was generally a bulb vase.

The vase was filled with water, and a bulb was put on top. I was fascinated by what ensued. Creepylooking tuberous feelers gradually dropped down into the water, and gradually a hyacinth flower, a daffodil or (for the more imaginative teacher on the staff) an amaryllis would slowly emerge, like a butterfly from a chrysalis.

I was fascinated by this lovely phenomenon and was determined to fill the house with dozens of bulb vases when I grew up. But things rarely work out the way you want them to, and I had to be content with the odd hyacinth bulb I found in my grandmother's house, generally on the window sill in the kitchen.

In later years, I noticed glass bulb vases at antiques fairs and in junkeries. But they seemed heavy things and had little decorative merit..

But hey, Patricia Coccoris's beautiful (and wonderfully researched) book turned up and my interest is rekindled with the sight of some of the most elegant bulb vases I have ever seen, some of them from across time itself.

For example, in one instance, Coccoris takes us back to the 18th century, where what might possibly be a European court beauty, in a portrait by the wonderfully accomplished French pastellist, Etienne Liotard, is pictured admiring a hyacinth flowering in a matula, a direct ancestor of the bulb vases we know today, except matulas (also used to carry urine samples to the physician) were carried upright in small wicker baskets.

But bulbs in the 15th and 16th centuries were objects of great interest to horticulturists and scientists alike.

Huge prices were paid in Holland for rare bulbs, and on my school reading list, as it happens, was a story by the long-forgotten writer H de Vere Stackpoole called The Great Bronze Tulip ,which concerned a rare ancient Egyptian flower, swallowed by a devoted Dutch gardener, who died with shock when the tulip took root in his innards and began to flower through his navel . By the 18th century, as the Liotard portrait proves, growing bulbs on water was firmly established and, by the end of the century, you could buy a bulb vase in most novelty shops in the great European cities and illustrations shown in this fascinating book prove the point, by showing that the bulb vases in use in 1730 are very little different from the ones we use today.

Obviously, the ceramics industry perked up when it saw how porcelain could sit comfortably next to a glass bulb vase and so, alongside glass, porcelain entered into the bulb growing industry. The most prominent figure in all this was Josiah Wedgwood.

In a letter to his business partner, Thomas Bentley, Wedgwood notes that if bulbs could be grown on "glass baubles" they could equally be grown in ceramic pots. As usual, Wedgwood was right.

Some of the Wedgwood ceramic bulb pots are sumptuously beautiful, rich with hand-painted scenes, landscapes and bouquets of flowers, etc enhanced by rich gilding.

Sometimes, they are known as bough pots, but there is a slight difference, since bough pots had a perforated porcelain lid which took blossoms and bough sprays, whereas a bulb pot proper carried only water, with a bulb sitting on top.

Incidentally, the point is made that these Wedgwood items were enormously popular, something borne out by Coccoris's diligent study of the Wedgwood kiln books.

But it was in the 19th century that glass bulb vases acquired a certain beauty, as the best glass manufacturers of the day saw their potential for profit in a burgeoning middle-class market.

At the Stuart glass works in Stourbridge, exquisite glass was being made and the design quality of bowls and vases was adapted for the bulb vases, lattice work, cutting and cameo work all made these items desirable pieces to grace a home.

The decline of the bulb vase set in immediately after the First World War.

The items which had delighted an earlier generation were either smashed or consigned to the cobwebs of the garden shed.

Daffodils replaced hyacinths in popular taste, and putting daffs in a bulb vase rather than a more usual table vase, seemed a little bit silly.

But fashions change and, in time, old notions return, and bulb vases are once again gaining in popularity, and illustrations shown in the book suggest that snowdrop bulbs are a very pretty variation on the hyacinth.

I am certainly inspired by what I have read and, if a book can do that, it's a success to my mind.

In fact, I am heading off for a visit to my nearest antiques market, since informed opinion tells me that a bulb vase can be purchased for less than pounds 10 and (having studied dozens of flowers in the illustrations) I fancy an amaryllis in my kitchen this summer.

But a word of praise must be given to the publisher of this delightful work, the first I have seen on such a rare subject. In my experience over many years as The Birmingham Post's book reviewer, a book of this quality usually comes from one of the well-established London publishers.

How very pleasant it is then to congratulate Cortex Design, which is based in Selly Oak, Birmingham, on a fine achievement. They have really come up with winner.

* Patricia will be exhibiting the book at the National Glass Fair @ National Motorcycle Museum, Solihull, on Sunday, May 6 ( and BBC Gardeners' World Live (in conjunction with the RHS), at the NEC on June 13-17 (http:// For more information, log on to (for the author) or (for the publisher)


A selection of bulb vases spanning a hundred years of history.
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Apr 19, 2012
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