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8 Jul 2024

Plant Journeys blog post #8 – Chrysanthemum: at the eastern fence

Written by Dr Minna Törmä (Senior Lecturer in History of Art, University of Glasgow)
An ink and colour drawing of white and chrysanthemums in white and yellow with green and red leaves. A blue and white checked border sits atop the drawing.
Chrysanthemums in Fan-shaped Design, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. H. O. Havemeyer Collection, Bequest of Mrs. H. O. Havemeyer, 1929 
Our gardens are a treasure trove of flora from across the world. In this series, researcher Dr Minna Törmä explores East Asian plants found in the garden of Hornel’s home.

The Plant Journeys exhibition at Broughton House is a unique collection of plant-inspired Japanese objects. These were collected by ‘Glasgow Boy’ Edward Atkinson Hornel during his visits to Japan in 1894–5 and the 1920s. In this blog series, researcher Dr Minna Törmä delves into the same plants by season, uncovering their history of introduction into Europe, their deep-rooted meaning and significance in Eastern cultures, and what sets each one apart.

In Japan, the chrysanthemum has held a significant place as the most prominent autumn flower since the Heian period (794–1185). The Japanese embraced the chrysanthemum festival from China, where it was revered as a symbol of long life. This exquisite flower is not just a visual delight, but also finds its use in herbal medicines and teas, and is a thoughtful gift for the elderly.

Perhaps the most famous poetic association is found in the poem ‘Drinking Wine’ by the Chinese poet Tao Yuanming (365–427), in which a couplet from poem number five has been an inspiration for artworks both in China and Japan:

‘As I pluck chrysanthemums beneath the eastern fence,
I distantly see the southern mountains.’

[A R Davies, T’ao Yüanming (AD365–427): His Works and Their Meaning, volume I, Cambridge University Press, 1983, p. 96]

Many paintings depict Tao enjoying chrysanthemums, but his presence is not necessary in an image for an association with him and the eastern fence to arise.

Originally a delicate and somewhat flimsy flower in China and Japan, as suggested by the following haiku by Matsuo Bashō (1644–94).

‘although very skinny
somehow the chrysanthemum
is in bud’

[Stephen Addiss, The Art of Haiku: Its History through Poems and Paintings by Japanese Masters, Shambala Publications, 2012, p. 7]

Through breeding, the chrysanthemum gained sumptuous and heavy blossoms. Hornel’s kimono pattern books display a great variety of chrysanthemum flowers, as can be seen in the images below.

Poems might contrast the chrysanthemum’s endurance with the ephemerality of cherry blossoms as in the haiku from the anthology Mutama River (Mutomagawa) of 1750 [2]:

‘chrysanthemums –
learn from cherry-blossoms
how to die’

[Stephen Addiss, The Art of Haiku: Its History through Poems and Paintings by Japanese Masters, Shambala Publications, 2012, p. 164]

Sir Abraham Hume (1749–1838), a well-known floriculturist, played a key role in introducing and popularising chrysanthemums by using his trade networks in China and India. The first illustration of these chrysanthemums was showcased in Curtis’s Botanical Magazine (1795–96). At Hume’s family estate, Wormleybury in Hertfordshire, he conducted experiments and successfully increased the diversity of Chinese chrysanthemum varieties.

The chrysanthemum is featured on the sake bottle at the Broughton House exhibition, and this simple form is also used on incense boxes. In Japan, this particular form represents the sun and is often found adorning the back of the imperial throne.

A ceramic cake bottle, coloured teal, blue, and cream with a gold spout. A light teal chrysanthemum pattern covers parts of the bottle.
Sake bottle | Broughton House Collection

Dr Törmä’s research can be explored further in the exhibition Plant Journeys: Stories of East Asian Plants in Hornel’s Home and Garden, which runs until 31 October at Broughton House, Kirkcudbright.

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