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22 Mar 2024

Plant Journeys: stories of East Asian plants in Hornel’s home and garden

Written by Dr Minna Törmä (Senior Lecturer in History of Art, University of Glasgow)
A painting of four ladies dressed in traditional Japanese kimonos chatting while a man sits and tends to a bed of chrysanthemums.
Detail from Ladies in a Garden with Maple Leaves and Chrysanthemum, Kokka Print, Broughton House 
Plant Journeys is an exhibition running from Friday 22 March to Thursday 31 October at Broughton House & Garden, Kirkcudbright.

The Plant Journeys exhibition at Broughton House is inspired by the plant imagery in the souvenir objects and photographs that Edward Atkinson Hornel collected during his time in Japan. The highlighted plants include bamboo, camellia, chrysanthemum, iris, lily, maple, magnolia, peony, prunus (including cherry and plum), and wisteria. These plants have been familiar features in British gardens for so long that they often feel like they have always been here.

However, this exhibition reminds visitors of these plants’ origins and cultural importance in their native countries. The history and cultural significance of these plants are revealed through ‘biographies’ or ‘plant journeys’, narrating the various meanings these plants have held in East Asia, particularly in Japan. Often, their significance is related to the seasons, with plants like cherry blossoms marking the arrival of spring or the intensely coloured maple leaves of autumn.

This idea of ‘plant journeys’ also creates opportunities to reflect on colonial histories. From the 18th century onwards, the British were fascinated with ‘exotic’ plants and desired them for their greenhouses and gardens. Botanical gardens, nurseries and wealthy private individuals employed plant collectors, and non-native plants were distributed and hybridised to create new, more resilient varieties.

Hornel and Japan

Hornel was fascinated by Japan, and this is still visible throughout Broughton House and Garden. Hornel travelled to Japan in 1893–94 and 1920–21, acquiring many items during his travels. These include the usual souvenirs such as fans, photographs, ceramics and prints, but also less common objects such as plant catalogues, kimono pattern books and other publications, both in Japanese and English. The Yokohama Nursery catalogues he brought back were lavishly illustrated and may have inspired his garden. Kimono pattern books are rich in plant imagery, as plants are the most common decorative motif for kimonos.

Hornel’s collection of Yokohama shashin (photographs) is large and consists of photographs widely available for tourists in the port city of Yokohama. The pictures were not just souvenirs but important for Hornel’s artistic practice as he often referenced motifs from them in his paintings.

A black and white image of the side profile of a man (artist E.A. Hornel) dressed in a three piece suit.
This photograph was taken shortly after Hornel’s return from his first visit to Japan. He is shown seated in front of the decorative wall hanging, or kakemono, which is also on display in this room.


One of Hornel’s souvenirs is a kimono with maple leaf patterns. The kimono is unfitted and designed to be wrapped around the body using only an obi (sash) as a fastening. It extended from the neckline to the ankles, and its sleeves could be long or short. The large sleeves provide ample surface for creative and elaborate decorative motifs, often featuring seasonal associations. The photograph below from Hornel’s collection shows Japanese girls wearing kimonos, some of them profusely covered with plant imagery.

Although the Japanese had started to wear Western-style clothing when Hornel first visited Japan, the kimono remained the garment of choice, particularly in informal settings and at home. A silk kimono – or its everyday cotton version called yukata – became a popular souvenir to take home. Western visitors might have been enchanted by the sight of geisha in their colourful kimonos in the entertainment quarters, and photographs of them were acquired as mementos. Hornel would go on to use these photographs as visual sources for his painting compositions.

A black and white photo of five Japanese girls, all dressed in kimonos, with four forming a circle while one is in the middle with her hands covering her eyes.
Girls Dancing, Broughton House collection

Hornel as a flower painter

The figures in Hornel’s paintings are often surrounded by flowers. In his Scottish landscapes, these tend to be roses and lilies. In his Japanese-inspired works, wisteria and irises are most common. The painting Japanese Woman by a Flowering Tree, part of the Plant Journeys exhibition, even includes a traditional Japanese bonsaied flowering tree.

Oil painting of a Japanese woman in a kimono, smelling red flowers on a tree.
E A Hornel, Japanese Woman by a Flowering Tree, oil on canvas (1921–25)


Arranging flowers and other plants is a sophisticated art in Japan. Ikebana (the Japanese art of flower arranging) is closely related to both seasonal and personal/life events. Arranging flowers and branches is a sign of respect, as freshly cut flowers are believed to be still alive. In the photograph below, the woman is placing her irises in a vase, which will be placed in the tokonoma (display niche) in front of the painting. She focuses on her task, carefully considering each branch’s height and direction to create a harmonious whole.

A colourised photo of a Japanese lady kneeling in a room and arranging flowers in a vase.
Lady Preparing Flowers, Broughton House collection

Nursery catalogues 

The Yokohama Nursery was a famous nursery, and its catalogues were sumptuously illustrated. In addition to supplying its Japanese clientele, the Nursery catered to foreign customers, not only in Japan but also through branches established in North America and even, from 1907, in London.  

Kimono pattern books  

Woodblock printed kimono pattern books have a long history in Japan. The early ones from the late 17th century were black and white with decorative motifs painted in ink showing the back of the garment. Hornel’s pattern books are later, from the Meiji period (1868–1912) and are multicoloured.    

Click through the galleries below to find out more about each image.

Seasonal plant themes 

The seasonal associations of plants play an important role in East Asian cultures, not just in ikebana. If cherry blossom viewing in spring is a must in Japan, then viewing colourful maple leaves is its autumnal counterpoint. Another essentially autumn plant is the chrysanthemum. The Chrysanthemum Festival originates in ancient China, but from the 8th century onwards it has also been prominent in the Japanese seasonal calendar. Drinking chrysanthemum wine was considered to bring good health and long life.

Paintings of plants and animals 

Bird-and-flower painting is popular in East Asia and often conveys specific symbolic associations. Instead of birds, we also find other pairings of flowers with animals: peonies with cats has been one favourite version. In China, paintings of peonies were popular because the symbolic message of opulence related to the flower and, therefore, its implied wish for wealth. Cats symbolise good luck, so the pairing of a peony with a cat may well be intended to wish luck in achieving wealth.

Painting of a long haired cat looking up at white peonies.
Peony with a Cat Hanging Scroll, ink and colours on silk  

Identifying plant imagery 

It’s often difficult to recognise plants on ceramics or woodblock prints because of the level of simplification they have gone through in the designer’s hands. This is the case with the large kakemono on display as part of the Plant Journeys exhibition: is the pinkish plant in it a wisteria or a cherry? 

Another example is prunus, which encompasses cherry, plum, peach and apricot. Kimono pattern books feature both plum and cherry: the plum branch is more angular and directed upwards, whereas the cherry branch is drooping but their blossoms can be very similar depending on the variety.

Other images show simplified depictions of plum and chrysanthemum. In one of the photos below, a flower emerges from an ornamental rock, but is it a camellia or a tree peony? The photograph [19.] show the plants in ‘real life’ and the large theatre poster [24.] a scene of action, with blossoming cherry trees in the background.

You can visit Plant Journeys: Stories of East Asian Plants in Hornel’s Home and Garden at Broughton House from Fri 22 March–Thurs 31 October, Thu–Mon, 10.00–16.30.