History in a pottery vase

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The Independent Online
Flower-arranging is, of course, an art - and one that is made all the more challenging when placed in a historical context.

Patricia Cleveland-Peck found some welcome help and advice.

That the British love gardens is well known the world over. What is less well documented is our expertise in historic flower-arranging. And it was because of this that Silvia Vasconi, a young lecturer from the Minoprio School of Horticulture in Italy, recently came over to England to tour some of our great houses and learn more on the subject.

"In Italy we do not have this tradition," she said, "but it is a feature which adds so much."

This is particularly the case with houses that are open to the public, where flowers clearly add life and atmosphere. Such detail is much appreciated by the National Trust, which hosted several of Silvia's country house visits.

To study 18th-century arranging Silvia went to Osterley Park House, just outside London. Here not only are flowers arranged in a Georgian style, but old-fashioned flower varieties are also grown in a walled garden behind the house. Lesley Orton, who heads the group of volunteer gardeners, explained that although only plants which would have been available at the time are grown there, she does use some modern strains. "As I see it, we refer to the 18th century, to the spirit of the time, without being totally exact."

The material is picked and stands in water overnight in the cool, flagged corridor to await the attention of Jean Grieve and her band of arrangers, also volunteers. The work is considerable, "We have done as many as 60 vases a week," said Jean. The arrangements do evoke enthusiastic comments from the public, but, asked Silvia, are they truly authentic?

"Not a great deal is really known about 18th-century flower arranging," said Jean. "We have some paintings, from which it would appear that arrangements were tighter, with very little movement or design. Also, they used lots of small containers rather than one big one, although the National Trust has supplied us with some special, brick-shaped containers and some bigger baskets for the Long Gallery, which are as authentic as they think they can be. However, to some extent we are groping in the dark."

The situation at Waddesdon Manor, Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild's enormous 19th-century home near Aylesbury, is quite different. Here the archives are superb and Silvia was able to examine photographic records of each room. The Red Book, dating from 1897, shows that the indoor floral decoration was then made up largely of green plants: parlour palms, ivy, adiantums, aspidistras and mind-your-own-business. There were also magnificent table decorations.

Rosemary Griffin, the curator at Waddesdon, explained that today it is impossible to replicate these arrangements. "We wouldn't want to put flowers in Sevres vases. Also, it would be too costly. In Baron Ferdinand's day, plants were brought up for house parties and then returned to the greenhouses. Now we are open to the public 31 weeks of the year, so plants have to come in and stay in."

One of the stunning photographs in the Red Book shows the dining-room table decorated with a profusion of roses. To replicate this, 70 roses would be needed every week; when Silvia visited, the display was made up of silk flowers which, lovely as they are, can only hint at the impact of the original.

Meanwhile, gardeners' records at Waddesdon indicate that during Queen Victoria's visit in 1890 a mass of orchids was used to decorate the tables, and that in 1910 Malmaison carnations, crotons and the white gladiolus `The Bride' were used.

Having looked at the 18th and 19th centuries, Silvia tackled 17th-century flower arranging at Hampton Court with one of our most talented historic flower arrangers, Malcolm Einchcomb.

"Seventeenth-century Dutch flower paintings give an idea of the plants to use," he said, as he began to place flowers in a container topped with wire netting. "Tulips, of course; but you do find a lot of artistic licence, with flowers of different seasons appearing together."

He took one or two day lilies, black hollyhocks, bergamot, wild sweet pea, solidago, verbascum, echinops, acanthus, Rudbeckia nitida, campanula, valerian, wild mallow, marjoram and sunflower, together with a large rose, and composed a wonderful, loose, airy arrangement.

"The rose would have been a centifolia, damascena or rubiginosa," he said, "but ours are finished, so I've had to use a florist's hybrid tea". The colours were mixed; blues, yellows and pink with a thread of deep, wine red running through the arrangement - and when the inner container was placed in a blue-and-white china vase it was as if a Dutch flower painting had come to life.

For information about historical flower arranging courses, call the National Association of Flower Arranging Societies, on 0171-828 5145. City & Guilds has a two-part flower-arranging qualification with some historic content. Courses are widely available; call 0171-294 2800 for details.