The Latin epitaph on this marble funerary monument translates as “Look Traveller, this is the monument of Nathaniel Bacon, A Knight of the Bath, whom, when experience and observation had made him most knowledgeable in the history of plants, astonishingly Nature alone taught him through his experiments with the brush to conquer Nature by Art. You have seen enough. Farewell.”
Erected in the church at Culford in Suffolk after Bacon’s death in July 1627 the monument is, according to Karen Hearn, former Curator of 16th and 17th century art at the Tate, “cutting edge in artistic terms. It is equally significant for garden historians because it commemorates not just the life of a prominent country gentleman, but also a pioneer artist and horticulturist. You may well never have heard of Nathaniel Bacon, and you are unlikely to have ever seen any of his pictures unless you have noticed the one the Tate acquired 20 years ago but that doesn’t diminish his importance. And as you will see although he’s an elusive figure he’s definitely one worth discovering….
The one member of the Bacon family you probably will have heard of is Sir Francis, the politician, natural philosopher and gardener. He was Nathaniel’s uncle. But there were many others who were in prominent positions in Elizabethan and Jacobean England despite the fact that the family was of extremely recent elevation. Nathaniel’s grandfather,Sir Nicholas, was the son of the head shepherd for the Abbot of Bury St Edmunds, whose talents were spotted. He was sent to Cambridge to study and became a lawyer. Whilst there he became friends with William Cecil, later Lord Burghley, and as so often, it’s not what you know but who.
As Cecil rose to prominence at the Tudor court so did Nicholas Bacon. He profited enormously from the Dissolution of the monasteries, built Redgrave Hall in Suffolk, joined the Privy Council, became Lord Keeper of the Privy Seal and eventually married William Cecil’s sister.
Once the family had their foot in the door they flourished. Nathaniel’s father, also Nicholas, became the first baronet created by James I and went on to have 11 children, the youngest of whom was Nathaniel. He was bought up at Redgrave but when he married Jane Meautys in 1614 his parents gave him nearby Culford Hall which they had built some twenty or thirty years earlier.
Nathaniel’s new wife was, as so often in these stories, a rich widow. She was Lady Cornwallis, had been at court, and already had a son, whose godmother was Anne of Denmark, James I’s wife. Jane bought money and property including another local house, Brome Hall.
Although it was obviously, as was the way, a dynastic match there must have been considerable affection too, as borne out by letters sent to her by Nathaniel. She was also clearly an educated and intelligent woman with a wide range of interests, as can be seen from her correspondence, a selection of which was published in the 19thc and can be found in full at: https://archive.org/details/privatecorrespon00baco
The couple settled down to family life at Culford, having 3 children. Their wealth meant they did not have to attend court or seek sinecures, and so Nathaniel could turn his attention to what were clearly the two other loves of his life – painting and plants. He also travelled quite often especially to the Low Countries , perhaps in pursuit of ideas and things to help him with his art and garden. His talents were soon recognized.
The education of gentlemen was increasingly diverse. appreciation of art, collecting and indeed the ability to draw and paint were beginning to join the accomplishments traditionally expected of men of culture and rank. Bacon was in the forefront of this. He is specifically mentioned by Henry Peacham in The Compleat Gentleman as “not inferiour …to our skillfullest Masters” and was probably England’s first serious amateur artist.
So what was Bacon painting? Unfortunately probably less than a dozen of his works survive, and even some of those are unsubstantiated. But the inventory taken after Jane’s death in 1659, shows that Culford Hall contained a large number of pictures, at least some of which were directly attributed to Nathaniel, although others presumably were by him as well.
If you glance through the list you’ll see, apart from the obvious portraits and religious paintings, some other very interesting descriptions, amongst them “Eighten Lantsheps little and great”. Lantshep or landscape painting was new art form entirely, and it is likely that Bacon had seen examples on his travels in Flanders and Holland. Did he experiment with the subject matter himself?
The answer is almost certainly yes, since in the collection of John Tradescant which formed the basis of the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, was a “small Landskip drawn by Sir Nath: Bacon”. It certainly is small: at only 7cm x 11cm it’s almost certainly smaller than the image of it that you’re looking at now. However according to Karen Hearn its existence would make Bacon the first English-born artist to paint a pure landscape painting. It also implies that through William Cecil Bacon might have known Tradescant and his nursery. It makes you wonder what the 18 “lantsheps” at Culford might have been like and where they are now.
Landscapes were not his only piece of pioneering. He left 3 self portraits which was a very rare kind of painting indeed for the time, and most significantly from the horticultural point of view he seems to have brought back and developed the domestic scene/still life from the low Countries. The late 16thc/ early 17thc in Holland had seen the emergence of a genre of market and kitchen scenes by artists like Pieter Aertsen who also introduced such domestic scenes into religious paintings, and Frans Snyders who introduced still lives featuring dead birds and animals. Paintings like these were known to be imported but, once again, Bacon is the first Englishmen known to have painted such scenes.
George Vertue noted that Bacon was “esteem’d for his great skill…many of his workes remain being fruits, flowers, fowls etc.” and he says that some were still at Culford over a century after Bacon’s death. There are 3 surviving paintings which fit into this category, but going back to the inventory there may well have been more. What for example was “the piece with the Owle on the baskett” , “the peece with the hooping birds” or the peece with two Deeres heads and Haunch” ?
There maybe good reasons why such things fascinated Bacon. He had grown up in a family who all seem to have been keen gardeners. Obviously his uncle Francis who wrote the first great piece in English the essay On Gardens, and who laid out the famous grounds at Gorhambury. But not only him. Nathaniel’s grandfather and father both apparently developed and adapted gardens at Redgrave, Culford and their London properties as well. Jane and Nathaniel were also friends with Lucy Harrington, Countess of Bedford whose gardens at Twickenham [bought from Uncle Francis] and Moor Park were well known. Letters show that she asked for plants from Bacon’s gardens in Suffolk.. Other letters from family and friends show that Bacon was an adept gardener and Tradescant’s catalogue includes “Sir Nathaniel Bacon’s great Peare”
So lets finally get round to the horticultural paintings and ask is this “the peece with roots and cabbages” on the inventory?
The answer is… I don’t think anybody knows although it certainly has some roots and supersized cabbages in abundance.
Why would Bacon have painted it? Was he showing off the range of plants he – and his gardener Shillinge whose importance can be measured by the fact that his portrait hung on the wall at Culford – grew in his kitchen garden? Its worth remembering that knowledge of the botanic world was expanding fast. New plants were beginning to arrive in our gardens in ever larger numbers from the Americas, and the first country’s first botanic garden was founded in Oxford in 1621. A quick glance at the painting shows that Bacon was growing a very wide range of fruit and vegetables, many of which would have been considered ‘exotics’. Barry Juniper has analysed the painting and its plants and I’m using some of the information he offered in his article “Sir Nathaniel Bacon: the Vegetable World” in The British Art Journal vol.1 no.2, 2000.
Curcubits – the pumpkin & squash family – from the Americas are well represented. There is a marrow, two kinds of squash and a pumpkin, as well as what Barry Juniper thinks are the forerunners of summer crookneck squash.
These were all known in Europe within a decade or two of Columbus’s return. Seeds would have made excellent ‘diplomatic’ gifts from the Spanish crown, and They appear, for example, on the walls of the home of the Papal banker by 1517. Even earlier squash appear in the personal Book of Hours of Anne of Brittany Queen of France which dates from 1505-10..
There are also curcubits from the old world – including an early form of cucumber and a gherkin.
Of course Being easily grown annuals which produce large quantities of seed knowledge of the plants, and the plants themselves spread rapidly.
The other interesting arrival from the New world that Bacon depicts is probably not clearly visible at first glance.
This detail shows a heap of legume and their pods, and if you look carefully, you should be able to make out pea pods, and broad beans and their pods but also some phaseolus coccineus – the runner bean – which originates in the Americas.
There is one more potentially American plant depicted. Whilst the black grapes are Vitis vinifera and originate from the Caucasus, Barry Juniper thinks the paler coloured ones might possibly be Vitis labrusca which originates in North America and which had recently been introduced to Britain. Whichever they are Bacon clearly had the technical skills and facilities to grow grapes to perfection. Incidentally the grapes are sitting on a Kraak dish, made in China for the European market from about the 1570s and which are often seen in Dutch still life paintings representing luxuries. [Kraak is a corruption of carrack, the ships in which the good were carried over from China]
The other crops shown are all from the old World but they include several unusual or new forms, or certainly unusual and new to England at the time. You might not think the turnip terribly exotic but the ones Bacon includes are white Milan turnips which were a great rarity and probably grown from imported seed.
Other more common root vegetables shown, include skirret and what looks like a parsnip but may well be a yellow carrot, and another carrot that might be developing a red/orange tinge. [For more on carrots and their colouring see a very popular earlier post at http://wp.me/p4brf0-xj2 ]
There are a few onions too which Barry Juniper suggests were infected with botrytis because of their bluish tinge.
And there are the cabbages! Exhibition quality according to Barry Juniper, although perhaps he’s overlooking the few caterpillar holes on the outer leaves. Even so, can you believe the size and perfection of them? Well apparently you should. Juniper says they are a giant selection known as ‘ krauť cabbages, the forerunners of the modern savoy cabbage, which were pickled or preserved in brine or vinegar (hence sauerkraut) for winter use. And if you look into the middle background of the painting you will see them growing.
A cabbage leaf is used to display a selection of plums but also some cherries – which shows that the painting must have been carefully staged and taken months to complete.
To the left of the canvas is a large basket of other autumnal fruit – apples, pears, quince, but also figs and peaches, again suggesting that Bacon had good horticultural skills and knowledge, to be able to get such more tender fruit to crop well.
But of course the fruit that dominates the picture are the two cantaloupe melons. The one entire and the other cut in imitation of the cookmaid’s cleavage. This ties in with a long classical tradition of the erotic associations of fruits and vegetables, which was revived in the Renaissance and would have been well known to Bacon, as an educated and cultured man. If you want to know more about these sexual and erotic connotations then a good place to start would be:
The first sets of instructions in English on how to grow melons were in Thomas Hill’s Gardeners labyrinth of 1577. He explained there were two possible methods – one using a dung bed and the other without. Since dessert melons need a temperature of 18C [65F] to germinate and around 23-6C [75-80F] to ripen its unlikely that they had much success without the heat from the rotting dung. Bacon certainly used this technique, as can be seen in the background of the picture.
The rough plank fence probably forms the boundary for the huge manure stack, which Juniper thinks might even be a giant hotbed, although given there is nothing growing on it seems unlikely. however the two figures behind it are both carrying produce which they may gathered from the other, invisible, side.
So what else can we tell about Bacon’s from this painting? He was obviously very proud of his kitchen garden, and there is no sign of any ornamental garden areas, apart from the flowers behind the cookmaid’s head.Even they are wildflowers rather than ‘cultivated’. From the top clockwise there are [with some repeats] chamomile, lady’s smock, field poppy, ox-eye daisy, corn marigold, stitchwort, calendula, chicory, tansy, bindweed, and charlock. Again they suggest the painting was done over an extended period
Given the level of Bacon’s interest and knowledge of plants, including exotics, perhaps we should also take notice of what is NOT included. John Gerard’s Herbal of 1597 is well known to include several ‘key’ new plants – tobacco, potatoes, tomatoes and maize. None of them figure here. but then they don’t really seem to figure anywhere outside herbals and botanical texts. Tomatoes resembled deadly nightshade, potatoes did not really catch on until the end of the 17thc, and maize, where it was grown in Europe, was considered merely animal fodder.
All in all the garden produce shown in this painting certainly go a long way to justify Bacon’s epitaph as being “knowledgable in the history of plants”. You can see “The Cookmaid with Still Life of Vegetables and Fruit” at Tate Britain and if you want to know more then I’d suggest starting with Karen Hearn’s short but comprehensive Nathaniel Bacon: Artist Gentleman and Gardener, published by the Tate in 2005. You might also like the analysis done by art historian Richard Stemp on his blog