Picture: Ambrosius Bosschaert the Elder: Still Life with Flowers in a Wan Li Vase (1609-1610)

Unsurprisingly, this little known picture is being used by the National Gallery to promote its exhibition “Dutch Flowers”, on until August 2016. This exhibition features examples from over 200 years of Dutch flower painting, quite a few of which are by Bosschaert and other members of his family. But this picture is important in itself, as it features everything a Dutch merchant of the period would aspire to possess – all the status symbols of the well to do. As such, it is a key document in seventeenth century Dutch social history.

A long standing motif of Holland, the tulips Bosschaert has here portrayed would be recognisable to any contemporary as the most desirable of all tulips at that time. It was the striped petals which set the Semper Augustus tulip apart from its plainer cousins, and the desire for them became so great that it created the first speculative financial boom. Known as Tulipomania, at its height life savings were exchanged for a single bulb in the hope that the flowers would feature the distinctive variegation of the Semper Augustus, and fortunes would be made for successful propagation.

Years later it was discovered that the patterning was caused when the bulb was infected by a virus which, in turn, weakened the plant and often rendered propagation unsuccessful, making it commercially unviable. When the tulip bubble did finally burst in the late 1630s, it did untold damage to the Dutch economy and many families lost everything. Sadly, as we have seen with the dotcom boom and the subprime bubble, history has an alarming tendency to repeat itself. I am told that a film is being made about the Tulipomania, which of course I will go and see, partly because I love tulips but also because it’s a cracking story.

What helped to rescue the Dutch economy is also featured in the painting – blue and white porcelain. The Chinese had, centuries earlier, perfected the creation of highly decorated porcelain which they quickly exported once trade links with Europe were opened in the early 1600s. However, after a diplomatic row the Chinese temporarily ended all trade with Europe, leaving the Dutch (and many other countries) with a market thirsty for a commodity that they could not provide. The potteries at Delft quickly developed their own distinctive take on the highly popular blue and white designs, which proved equally popular and soon gained imitators of their own, most notably Spode in England. The Chinese patterns, however, were always the most coveted and remain popular to this day. A genuine Chinese vase was a prize worth having.

Less obvious, perhaps, are the shells sitting in the foreground, representing the growth in Dutch colonialism. The shells are from both the East and West Indies, showing the spread of European colonial influence at that time. Shells were often prominent features of “wunderkammer” (cabinets of wonders) which many wealthy or intellectual people developed to display the variety of their collections. Shells were natural structures, highly coloured and often iridescent, which came in a large variety of shapes and were virtually impossible to reproduce, so became highly collectible. It even had its own little “mania”, nowhere near as large or as damaging as that for tulips, but certainly any collector worth the name had at least one fine specimen in his collection.

So there you have it – a snapshot of social aspirations in seventeenth century Holland in one painting. I’m delighted it’s being seen by more people; it’s one of my favourites.


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