The emblematic beauty of birds and fruit

Plate from an Italian manuscipt, c. 1600, at Ickworth. ©National Trust/Mark Purcell

Stuart Currie just left a perceptive comment on the National Trust Libraries Facebook page about the visual echoes between an illustration of birds and fruit in an Italian manuscript at Ickworth and William Morris’s ‘Strawberry Thief’ textile design.

'Strawberry Thief' upholstery on an amrchair in the Great Parlour at Wightwick Manor, Wolverhampton. ©NTPL/Paul Raeside

Although I am not aware of any evidence that Morris ever saw this particular manuscript, it may be indicative of a tradition of depicting birds in their natural habitat, and with their favourite foods.

Painting of a blackbird with cherries, by either Ambrosius II Bosschaert or Abraham Bosschaert, c. 1600, at Ham House. Surrey. ©NTPL/John Hammond

There are probably voluminous studies about this subject out there – do please leave a comment if you are aware of any.

A West Indian monkey with birds, fruit, flowers and butterflies, by Sarah, Lady Fetherstonhaugh, 1757, at Uppark, West Sussex. ©NTPL/John Hammond

Being new to the subject, I found it interesting to discover a number of images of birds and fruit, in different styles and media, among the National Trust’s collections.

Bird with fruit in pietra dura, in the Florentine cabinet (once owned by William Beckford) in the Drawing Room at Charlecote Park, Warwickshire. ©NTPL/Derrick E. Witty

There is obviously an ornithological and a botanical aspect to these depictions, but they may also contain symbolic, emblematic meanings.

Printed textile wall hanging with bird among foliage and fruit, at Belton House, Lincolnshire. ©NTPL/Rob Matheson

In the setting of a domestic interior, these images may of course also have the effect of bringing the natural world inside, of evoking the twitter and chirp of birds, their lithe hoppings and flutterings, the rustle of leaves and the smell of ripe fruit.

9 Responses to “The emblematic beauty of birds and fruit”

  1. style court Says:

    And such a perennial favorite throughout fashion history (with the exception, maybe, of the 1980s when apparently Bennison found clients less than enthusiastic about the bird/branch/fruit motifs :)). Just the other day, I noticed Liberty’s ‘Strawberry Thief’ made up into a very chic top.

    Love the variety of media you included here, particularly the pietra dura and the last printed textile.

  2. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Courtney, in response to your comment about Strawberry Thief I did a bit of seaching and found that MAC Cosmetics have recently done a product range featuring an updated version of that pattern, in collaboration with Liberty’s – interesting issues of branding and rebranding.

    And your mentioning that birds and fruit were unpopular in the eighties shows once again how unpredictable style trends can be – you would have thought that that sort of thing would have been so popular in the heritage-conscious eighties.

  3. style court Says:

    Emile — great example! MAC using Strawberry Thief really shows how enduring and versatile certain prints (or motifs) can ultimately be.

    I’m still so surprised about birds not doing well for Bennison in the 80s. As you say, it was such a classics-driven decade.

  4. Parnassus Says:

    The rivalry between birds and farmers is long-standing. Perhaps birds, as emblematic of nature, are entitled to some of the harvest, yet this conflicts with the goals of civilization to control nature. It is interesting that in the Ickworth drawing, the birds are not in a natural setting, but are attacking fruit that has already been harvested and tied up as was done with fruit of special quality. Even the branch it is sitting on belongs in a garden, and has been artificially cut off by the gardener.

    By the way, in the Bosschaert painting, those look like sour cherries–my favorite.
    –Road to Parnassus

  5. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Parnassus, how interesting, I didn’t realise that about the practice of hanging up fruit – and yes that would seem to add some kind of symbolic message about ‘culture vs nature’. And of course at the time that this manuscript was produced – c. 1600 – European gardens were very much about explicitly controlling and shaping nature.

  6. Christopher Gallagher Says:

    Hi Emile, I don’t think that there is anything different in the way gardens were treated in the early 17th century than today – if you are wanting to grow fruit in your garden (and many gardens of that period involved fruit growing) then you don’t want to be using it to feed the birds. That said, I think it was William Addison who wrote in the early 18th century, about the pleasure of having blackbirds in his garden, and hence feeling himself to be closer to nature, even if they were stealing his cherries at the time – he figured the exchange was worth the price.

    We have to remember also that Italy in summer is a good deal warmer than it is here, and that much life was lived outside, in the garden, shaded by arbours and pergolas with plants and fruit growing on them (at least, for those who could afford such things). Hence, the experience of being amongst birds, insects and other animals was more commonplace perhaps than in our cold northern climate. The presence of birds, insects, monkeys or irreverent putti also bring some life and movement – or at least the idea of movement – into what could otherwise be a rather static representation of fruit &/or flowers.

    Needless to say, in 1600 in England (also I daresay in Italy at that time) everything had at least one symbolic meaning. It is interesting that the fruit in your Italian painting are hung on strings – perhaps the text of the book itself might explain why this would have been done?

  7. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Chris, thanks very much for your knowledgeable contribution. I didn’t know that quote from Addison – such a charming conceit, offering up a few cherries in return for a sense of communion with nature.

    The climate aspect relating to where and why things were made is so important, and often overlooked – as in the case of the small windows in Palladian architecture, suitable for the glaring sun of Italy, which were slavishly and inappropriately copied in Britain’s damp and overcast shires 🙂

    Parnassus mentioned above that there seems to have been a practice of hanging up prize fruit in this way. And it just occurred to me that fruit and vegetables are also shown in this way in the work of the Spanish still-life painter Juan Sánchez Cotán:

  8. Christopher Gallagher Says:

    So they are – how interesting. One would think they’d be liable to fall off their stems – do we have any more information on this practice, anyone?

  9. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Yes just imagine the elaborate Spanish expletives uttered by Cotán as yet another ultra-ripe apple slipped off its painstakingly tied thread and thudded to the floor … 🙂

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