I urge you to visit the small but perfectly formed exhibition currently in the Shiba Room of the Fitzwilliam Museum, which contains flower paintings from the wonderful collection of Henry Rogers Broughton (1900-73), 2nd Baron Fairhaven, whose bequest to the museum I have mentioned before. The title ‘Crawling with Life’ gives the clue: all the images selected have insects, or gastropods, or in one case a bird, decorating (and in some cases predating upon) the plants.
The exhibition is conveniently close to ‘Death on the Nile’, and gives you the chance to get your dropped jaw back into place as you emerge from among the mummies. Several works on display are by the entomologist, traveller, and superb painter Maria Sibylla Merian, others by Georg Dionysius Ehret, whose exquisitely careful images look somehow less three-dimensional and alive than those of Merian.
However, the picture that most caught my attention is ‘A flowering branch of Plumeria flavum (frangipani tree), against a distant landscape, a sphinx moth and a caterpillar’, painted in 1769 by Thomas Robins the Younger (1748-1806).
Robins was the son of (guess who?) Thomas Robins the Elder (1716-70), who apparently trained as a fan painter. The caption draws attention to the highly decorative effect of the Elder’s work, with all sort of plants and insects placed together in a rather overloaded composition which disregards seasonality – cyclamen with sweet williams and foxgloves, anyone?
But the Elder was also a significant (if ‘provincial’) painter of landscapes and the country houses in them: the gardens of Painswick in Gloucestershire have been restored on the basis of Robins’ bird’s-eye view of the estate in 1748 (with a characteristically elaborate border of shells).
The Younger, by contrast, is more ‘botanical’ in his approach, placing the plant and the insect which feeds off it together in their native habitat – in this case, Central or South America. (This scientific scrupulousness may have been a bad thing commercially: it seems that the more flowers and beasts you could cram into a painting, the more it sold for.)
When I was young, shop-bought cakes were luridly coloured (who remembers the red, orange and deep green ‘traffic-light’ jam tarts?) and (even to a greedy child) disgustingly sweet. One of the worst choices in this respect was the so-called ‘frangipani’ tart, the pastry shell filled with jam and topped with a gooey stuff which managed to be both sweet and bitter at the same time – probably something to do with the artificial almond flavouring. Thus ‘frangipani’ is thus a foreign word with not quite Proustian resonances for me, and I had never investigated it further until I saw this painting.
As always, the matter is complicated. Plumeria flavum is no longer used as the botanical binomial: apart from anything else it’s bad Latin grammar. The pink variety depicted by Robins appears to be Plumeria rubra, which is native to Central America.
Linnaeus bestowed its name to honour the French botanist Charles Plumier (1646-1704), a member of the monastic order of the Minimi (‘the lowest of the low’), who was a pupil of Tournefort and made three voyages to the West Indies, resulting in massive reference works on New World plants which led to Louis XIV appointing him Royal Botanist. (He was the first to describe the fuchsia, which he named after the German botanist Leonhart Fuchs. Armed with this information, you will never need to wonder how to spell fuchsia again, assuming the need ever arises.)
It may be that Plumeria rubra was originally native to the West Indies only, and was taken by Spanish missionaries to the Central American mainland (it has curative powers for sores and bruises), and then across the Pacific (although another school of thought has the plant being spread via the voyages of the Polynesian and Melanesian peoples). It is also alleged that frangipani is popular and common in the Philippines and Thailand, where Christian missionaries were welcomed, but rare in China and Vietnam, where (until at least the mid-nineteenth century) they were not. It has also spread to India, where there is also a native ‘climbing frangipani’, Chonemorpha fragrans, and to Australia, where both Plumeria and Chomemorpha are very popular as garden and cut flowers.
Meanwhile, the common name ‘frangipani’ is also confusing. There is a convoluted story about a Marchese di Frangipani (a descendant of an ancient and rambling Roman family, one of whom, extraordinarily enough, betrayed Conradin to Charles of Anjou at the battle of Tagliacozzo), a general under Louis XIII of France who invented a perfume for gloves which was approved of by the king.
Either he used frangipani flowers to distil the perfume or he created a perfume which people recognised as being similar to the scent of the plant when it was introduced (an unlikely activity for a marchese unless of course he was an alchemist as well as a soldier). An alternative is that the name comes from the French word for curdled milk, ‘frangipanier’, which the sap of the plant was supposed to resemble. Which is more plausible?
As for the cake, frangipani is a baked almond mixture, according to the BBC Food website: ‘Frangipane (or frangipani) is an almond-flavoured sweet pastry cream used when preparing various desserts, sweets, cakes and pancakes. It is made with milk, sugar, flour, eggs and butter, mixed with either crushed macaroons or with ground almonds.’ Named for the scented gloves, the plant, or perhaps the invention of another member of the Frangipani family?
As Robins the Younger was aware, the plant in its native habitat is ravaged by the caterpillar of the sphinx moth, a member of the Sphingidae family to which our native hawkmoths also belong.
The larvae of this particular species, Pseudosphinx tetrio (Linnaeus 1771), have the toxicity of the leaves as a protective device: they are unlikely to be eaten by any predator.
But an unusual feature of the flowers is that they don’t actually produce nectar: the scent lures insects who leave empty-handed, except for the pollen of which they are the unwitting carriers.
And finally, yet another demonstration that everything is connected to everything else: I was writing this piece when I went to the RHS Botanical Art show, where the Lindley Library (shortly to reopen) was displaying some plates from Curtis’s Botanical Magazine – and one of the volumes (for 1794) was open at Plumeria rubra.