Sitting twenty feet away from my mother-in-law in her garden this morning, hollering at each other over our first shared coffee since the Coronavirus locked us all indoors, I put my glasses on to see if I could hear her any better and immediately a couple of Snake’s Head Fritillaries appeared at my feet. Once she’d adjusted her hearing aid and cottoned on to what I myself was yelling about, my mother in law was ecstatic. It had arrived in her garden some years ago by itself, and only recently, she thought she must have lost it.
The Snake’s Head has lovely associations for me, too. Years ago, when I was working at Bristol City Museum, another of the illustrators made me a drawing of what he believed to be one of the last living Snake’s Head Fritillaries in the country. Happily, having since then been rescued from the brink of extinction, what was once a wild meadow flower has become a firm garden favourite.
Whenever I see this flower I instantaneously remember the Scottish architect – Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s – famous painting of it. Here’s a detail for you, of that painting, made while he and his wife were living at Walberswick. I was going to share a link to the recent BBC documentary about Mackintosh and his work, as told by Lachlan Goudie – he that I quite fancy, from the various televised painting competitions – but I see to my disgust that it’s no longer available. Not to worry, here is another link to a program about the history of Walberswick and Dunwich, which is very good viewing in its own right, and makes passing reference to Machintosh too. This one’s still available for the next 23 days.
If you want to explore even further round this subject, I was recently introduced by my Colchester art class, to the novel ‘Mr Mac and Me’ by Esther Freud. Based in Walberswick and Southwold, it tells the story of the friendship between the Mackintoshes and a young local boy, at the start of the First World War. It’s a good yarn, unexpectedly politically prescient and made all the more fun for being set somewhere local (ish) that we sort of know.
Back to Mackintosh’s painting of the Snake’s Head Fritillary. According to the novel, there’s a tiny hidden bird in every one of his pictures. The Snake’s Head painting just happens to be the one that features on the cover of the book and believe me, I have scoured every milllimetre of it, with great excitement at first, then growing skepticism. I might be wrong. I hope I’m wrong. My eyesight’s not what it used to be. There are bits where you could, if you were very determined, see a bird of sorts. Perhaps. Is that a bird’s head and beak, in simple outline, peeping out from under the very top petal in the above detail? It might be if I gave it a dot for an eye.
One of the things I very much love about this painting is the artist’s interpretation of the Snake’s Head’s pattern. Chequered grids were a bit of a leitmotif, with him. Though not as successful as you might have expected in Britain, in his life-time, Mackintosh was highly thought of in the rest of Europe. One contemporary of his, who adored Mackintosh’s work was the Viennese artist Gustav Klimt. Klimt quickly assimilated some of M’s ideas. You can see it here, and in one on the left, whatever it’s called, and The Kiss.
I found another painting of the Snake’s Head just now – or perhaps it’s collage, by a contemporary artist called Lyn Kerr – a direct tribute to Mackintosh’s original, you can see at a glance.
It really does look chequered, close up.
It also looks to me like pink silk ribbons
woven in and out of a hidden warp.
I thought I’d worked out a way of remembering the difference between warp and weft: The warp threads stay fixed and the weft threads are the ones that run in and out from weft to right. But I realise now that it all dempends upon the warp’s staying vertical. Yet another insight bites the dust…
The point I’m leading up to is: This is the Snake’s Head’s season! If you have one in your garden, it would make a lovely subject for a watercolour painting of your own. And if you’re looking for a project to while the weeks in lockdown away, why not start up a sketch book garden diary?
I think I’m going to do the same. I say I think, because I have’t quite warmed up yet, from this morning’s garden picnic in Wrabness and I’m currently into doing watercolour portraits. But who knows……
By Art Tutor, Martina Weatherly.