Scent from Nature – a rosy exhibition preview

This spring, our wonderful local Fitzwilliam Museum is presenting an exhibition with a focus firmly on flowers. Titled Scent from Nature: Beauty’s Botanical Origins, the show is an exploration of plants utilised by the beauty and fragrance industry, showcasing the Museum’s dazzling collection of botanical watercolours, alongside ancient and more recent perfume vessels.

Johann Christoph Bayer (1738-1812) Jasmine, watercolour
and bodycolour on vellum, PD.368-1973 –
image courtesy the Fitzwilliam Museum.

​Having been given a sneak peek of what is included in the show, I’m especially drawn to the ​watercolours depicting roses…they are just stunning.

Pieter Withoos (1654-93) Rosa gallica ‘versicolour’,
watercolour and bodycolour on vellum, PD.101-1973.3 –
image courtesy the Fitzwilliam Museum.

The Museum shares: “In the sixteenth century the Rosa gallica ‘versicolour’
appeared, also known as the Rosa mundi, which is distinguished by its striped petals​. This is seen in the seventeenth-century watercolour by Pieter Withoos (above) in which he has faithfully recorded the gently curled petals and the insect-damaged leaf.”

I planted a Rosa mundi a few months back having seen it on an old Carol Klein show from the BBC, and can’t wait to see it bloom this summertime 🌹

C. M. Bucher, Rosa damascena ‘versicolour’, York and
Lancaster rose, watercolour and bodycolour over graphite
outline on vellum, PD.237-1973 –
image courtesy the Fitzwilliam Museum.

Another of the old roses in the exhibition was painted by an unknown artist called C. M. Bucher. Rosa damascena, or the damask rose (above) is a hybrid of the Rosa gallica and Rosa moschata. The damask rose is much celebrated for its numerous petals and intense scent.

Joseph Jakob von Plenck (1738-1807), Rosa Campestris Alba and Rosa Canina.
Folio 14. Pen and ink with watercolour, gum Arabic and white bodycolour, over graphite on laid paper.
PD.98-1973.14 – image courtesy the Fitzwilliam Museum.

The above watercolour is fascinating in the way ​it beautifully presents the inflorescence of the two roses, including their stems, thorns, leaves, flower heads and fruit. It makes us think about all the different components of a rose and the many ways each specimen differs.

Hettie Ward, Assistant Keeper of Paintings, Drawings and Prints at the Fitzwilliam Museum, shares:
“Our fascination with capturing plants’ smells and our determination to extract their oils for medicinal or cosmetic purposes has been a common practice since ancient times. It has been wonderful to select works from our outstanding botanical collection that reveal these stories and histories whilst also learning more about where certain ingredients in our perfume or in our moisturisers come from. This includes the enormous amounts (tonnes in fact!) of damask roses that are grown and harvested in Syria and elsewhere to create the essential rose oil that can be found in rose-scented perfumes, or the eight million flowers required to create just 1kg of jasmine oil. But nothing of course beats breathing in the smell of the plants themselves and I cannot wait until they all flower this spring and summer!

This is just the tip of the iceberg in the fascinating selection of work that’s set to be on display. Check the Fitzwilliam’s website and social media for further details as they’re announced; the exhibition is set to open on 18 May 2021.

Do let me know if you visit and what your favourite pieces are!

Until next time,

🌞 Katherine

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