Martin Battersby wrote that the sunflower has no special association with Japanese art (1) yet, during the second half of the nineteenth century, it became the symbol of the Anglo-Japanese Aesthetic Movement.
Norfolk’s Thomas Jeckyll played a part in its popularization – his Japonaise designs for fireplaces, produced by the Norwich foundry of Barnard Bishop and Barnards, helped connect the sunflower motif with other more recognisably Japanese emblems like cherry blossom, fan shapes and cranes. The sunflower crops up on illustrations, paintings, metalwork, china. One explanation for its popularity was “… the ease with which its simple flat shape could be wrought into a formal pattern…” (1).
It may be beautiful but the sunflower’s flat shape is anything but simple. The pattern of seeds on the flower head is mathematically complex, comprised of clockwise and anti-clockwise spirals. The numbers of right-handed and left-handed spirals, which change as the flower grows, are adjacent numbers in the Fibonacci series; for example 55 and 89, or 8 and 13. Described by Leonardo Fibonacci in the thirteenth century, this series is 0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21 etc, where the next number is the sum of the previous two. Jeckyll, like all other artists (such as van Gogh in his later series of sunflower paintings ) had to devise a shorthand for representing such complexity.
Jeckyll was certainly not the only one to use the sunflower motif in an Arts and Crafts context – William Morris had popularised it a generation earlier – but as a member of a London-based circle of connoisseurs of oriental art he was one of the first to apply it within the Anglo-Japanese Aesthetic Movement. One of his most famous designs was for Barnard Bishop and Barnards’ cast-iron Pavilion or Pagoda for the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition, 1876. Seventy two sunflowers, three-foot-six inches high, formed the railings around the Pagoda (2).The Pagoda was bought ca. 1880 by the Norwich Corporation for £500 and erected in Chapelfield Gardens. When exhibited, the ceilings and upper parts of the walls of the Pagoda were decorated with embroidered textiles in the Japanese style. But when the pagoda was dismantled some 70 years later these seem to have been cut for curtains; fortunately large fragments are conserved in the Costume and Textile Department at Norwich Castle Museum & Art Gallery (5).
Below, an early colour photograph from the essential George Plunkett photographic archive of Norwich (3) shows the Pagoda in 1935, left of the bandstand.The photographer George Plunkett’s great-uncle, the wonderfully named Aquila Eke, was a son of a blacksmith. He also became a blacksmith at Barnard Bishop and Barnards’ Norfolk Iron Works and is said to have made much of the bas-relief work for the Pagoda (3).
“At about the age of 10 [Aquila] ran away from home, finding his way to Norwich. (On arrival, he thought he had reached London!). He found his way into the blacksmith’s shop in the yard of the Royal Oak public house in St Augustine’s Street, where he was recognised, and promptly driven back to Drayton. However, he eventually came to Norwich to work, and joined the Norfolk Ironworks of Messrs Barnard, Bishop and Barnard, where [twelve years after running away] he assisted in the manufacture of the handsome wrought-iron pavilion which for so many years graced Chapel Field Gardens.”(From the Plunkett family archive, courtesy of Jonathan Plunkett).
In 1942 the Pagoda was damaged during the ‘Baedeker’ raids that bombed cities judged by the German travel guide to be of cultural and historic importance. Blast damage and general corrosion led to the dismantling of the structure in 1949. Some panels of the sunflower railings were salvaged and, after being used at the tennis courts of Heigham Park, Norwich, were refurbished in 2004 as the park’s entrance gates. During restoration, Sarah Cocke (4) remembers a mixture of old and new sunflowers mixed in cardboard boxes at Norwich City Works. Presumably, Sarah’s photograph below shows a new sunflower since it has a simplified single row of petals instead of a double row as in the original pieces.
This was the same design that Jeckyll used for the andirons in the fireplace of the Peacock Room, one of Jeckyll’s few remaining vestiges after Whistler’s makeover (see previous post).The most recent manifestation of Jeckyll’s sunflower design is in the newly-made gates to Chapelfield Gardens, where the originals had surrounded the Pagoda over 125 years ago.
The sunflower motif is ubiquitous and can be found elsewhere in Norwich. The flatiron-shaped red brick and terracotta building at the junction of London and Castle streets has, around the top of the second storey, a series of white terracotta roundels containing sunflowers with blue-glazed petals.
The house at number 19 Ipswich Road is profusely decorated with diapered panels of sunflowers above windows and on a gable.
At 50 All Saints Green is a recently restored (2015) former coach house and stables. It is highly decorative with two panels of terracotta sunflowers: one in the east end’s Dutch gable…
… and the other above the front door (below).
Although described as sunflowers the central apple-like structure sidesteps the complexity of Fibonacci’s spirals that Jeckyll had managed to convey.
1. Martin Battersby (1973). Essay on ‘Aesthetic Design’. pp 18-24 In, The Aesthetic Movement, Ed Charles Spencer. Academy Editions .
2. Susan Weber Soros and Catherine Arbuthnott (2003). Thomas Jeckyll, Architect and Designer, 1827-1881. The Bard Graduate Center for Studies in the Decorative Arts, Design, and Culture, New York. Pub, Yale University Press.
3. George Plunkett’s Photographs of Old Norwich http://www.georgeplunkett.co.uk/Website/
4. Recording Archive for Public Sculpture in Norfolk and Suffolk. http://www.racns.co.uk
5. The Costume and Textile Department at the Castle Study Centre, Norfolk Museums Service. http://www.museums.norfolk.gov.uk/Visit_Us/Norwich_Castle_Study_Centre/index.htm
6. The Freer and Sackler Galleries, The Smithsonian’s Museums of Asian Art. Washington D.C., USA. http://www.asia.si.edu/exhibitions/current/peacockRoom/pano.asp
Thanks to Sarah Cocke of racns; Jonathan Plunkett of the Plunkett photographic site; Lisa Little, Samantha Johns and Shaz Hussain of the Norfolk Museums Service.