I don’t have one of those stories about how I learned to garden at my grandmother’s knee — though I do have youthful memories of snipping chives from one grandmother’s kitchen garden.
My other grandmother lived on a defunct farm that was being swallowed up by suburban houses and malls. But it still had fields of tall grass on each side of the house where we could play unseen. There was a barn and an abandoned orchard of gnarled apple trees that bloomed in a cloud of white each spring. I remember picking strawberries and admiring the massive Clematis ‘Jackmanii’ growing on the former chicken coop. Even as I child I knew it was something special.
I don’t remember many flowers indoors or out at our various houses. We mostly grew vegetables, though my father had poppies and peonies in his last garden. I can trace my gardening interest to graduate school where I found myself spending untold hours in pursuit of the last elusive clue, the final piece of a floral puzzle.
Specifically I was researching the many symbols that embellished a piece of 17th century English needlework that one of my textile design professors was trying to decipher. The piece was an example of "stumpwork" where everything in the scene is embroidered separately and then stitched to the background, giving the item a three-dimensional, sculpted quality.
This small container (c.1600) has scenes from the life of Abraham, with Sarah and Hagar (above), to convey a "message about the importance of marriage and the proper behavior of women," according to an article about 16th and 17th century embroidery in World of Interiors magazine.
Most pieces were done by young women showing off their virtuoso skills to potential suitors. This raised technique was popular for a brief period of only about 20 years in the mid-1600s, so there are few surviving examples. But those that still exist are dazzling. What makes them so fascinating to the museums and enthusiasts who collect them is the profusion of birds, animals and plants that are depicted. Everything is recognizable — that's the easy part. Everything has a symbolic meaning — which is the hard part.
A rose was never a rose for the Tudors and the Stuarts. That's why whole careers can be devoted to explaining Shakespeare and why there's an annotated version of Mother Goose to tell you just who contrary Mary was and how her garden grew.
And how those gardens did grow! For the English, gardens and needlework have always been intertwined. Their embroidered landscape designs, technical skills and exotic materials kept pace with the advances in real gardens. Designs literally moved from one sphere to the other; from topiary in the garden to stumpwork in the great room.
GARDENING WITH SILK AND GOLD/THOMASINA BECK
This beadwork basket, c. 1675, said to be made by 20-year-old Elizabeth Clarke (1655-99), is lavishly decorated with three-dimensional flowers, leaves, acorns, and lemons. The couple in the arbor are worked on satin according to needlewoman and author Thomasina Beck.
Beneath the reality of the plants and animals in the needlework was the mythology and meaning of all that was so fancifully depicted. The lion and leopard — symbols of English sovereignty — are always included. Along with them are any number of items that add layers of meaning and mystery. All those years ago my job was to decipher the meaning of the assorted flora and fauna — in particular the significance of the parrot that was part of the scene. I looked in art history books, works on natural history, horticulture and landscape design. I roamed the stacks at numerous university libraries. I read Marvell and Spenser and Pope.
No matter how long and hard I looked, I couldn't find a reference in those pre-computer days to the meaning of a parrot, whether painted or embroidered. But I discovered all the flowers and plants depicted in those textiles were real and were still growing in English — and American — gardens. They were also still for sale in catalogs and at nurseries, which meant I could have a garden just like the one I was researching. I could have my own Shakespearean "bank where the wild thyme blows" among nodding violets.
Some might consider my hours in the stacks wasted since I never did discover the meaning of that damn parrot. Instead I put away my needle and picked up a trowel after graduation. Moving out of the history books and into the garden proved to be one of the wisest decisions I’ve ever made.
Though this detail from The Temptation of Adam and Eve does not feature stumpwork, it does show the use of nature as inspiration for needlework in the 16th and 17th centuries.
EPISODE 1: Though many of my posts have shown images from my garden, why and where I garden — or how I got started — have not really been among the topics I've presented. I decided it's time to go on a garden odyssey; to look at how and what I've learned about gardening from dirt to design to techniques that perhaps will be useful to you. Stop by on Wednesdays for new episodes.
A variation of this column appeared under my byline in The Capital Times.