Tuesday, August 30, 2011

St. Thomas More's Flowers


Some readers might wonder whether the image of a flower arrangement I used for my avatar for a time (above) is a photograph of a design I did. The answer is "No". The flowers are from a famous painting of the family of St. Thomas More (1478-1535), the lawyer, scholar, and statesman who was martyred by Henry VIII because he refused to accept Henry as the head of the church in England.

An original drawing for a painting of the family was done by the artist Hans Holbein the Younger around 1527.  Holbein also painted the famous portrait of More in his attire as Lord Chancellor of England that is now in the Frick Collection in New York.

Holbein did complete the family painting but it was destroyed.  Rowland Lockey painted the version just above based on Holbein's drawing.  The sketch by Holbein showed a vase of flowers and Lockey elaborated on them.

It seems likely that the flowers were grown right there in More's gardens at his estate at Chelsea.  According to one of More's biographers, Peter Ackroyd:
"[T]he gardens were filled with a variety of trees and herbs and flowering shrubs.  In particular there was a mulberry tree, because its name is morus, as well as rosemary and lilies, gillyflowers and sweet cabbage roses.  There was an orchard with its apple trees and pear trees, plums and apricots and spreading vines.  The house was approached by a path, with a few steps leading up to a front porch decorated with jasmine and honeysuckle." 
(Ackroyd, The Life of Thomas More, Doubleday, 1998, p. 252.)
Interestingly, although the manor house is long gone, the mulberry tree is still standing and pilgrims often visit it.  There is a commemorative plaque at the foot of the tree.  According to the plaque, More, his family and friends liked to gather there to talk and enjoy the company of one another.

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